That weekend reminded me of my old friend Chino Pajares, the owner of a revolver, who one day nearly blew my head off.
I remembered him because I’d gone to Albacete with Borja, another friend. Borja’s a comedian. He does stand-up as a failed superhero called Guarromán. He goes on stage in red briefs and tells jokes for an hour. I always go along on these gigs and pass myself off as his Argentine road manager (because Peruvian road manager sounds even less believable). But I really don’t work. I confine myself to free drinks in the bars where Borja performs and to laughing at his jokes even though I know them by heart.
After breakfast on Sunday, when we were about to return to Madrid, we discovered that Borja’s car had been towed. A decal in the spot where the vehicle had been parked advised that it was a crosswalk. Still, Borja was furious. There wasn’t any sign, he said. He went so far as to say chuchasumadre in perfect Peruvian (Borja’s from Seville, but one of these days, from hanging out with me so much, he’ll be asked for a visa to get into his own country). And he berated the authorities nonstop all the way to the police station.
“You’ll see how I chew out these fascist cops,” he said. “They’re abusing their authority. Fuck!”
And he meant it. It’s a question of temperament. When two Spaniards crash, they get out of their cars, argue, and shout at each other for half an hour. Each blames the other. Then they exchange addresses and go home. But, when two Peruvians crash, they get out of their cars, make sure the other is all right, and each takes responsibility for the accident (they call it an incident). They treat each other very politely. Then they get out their revolvers and settle the matter with bullets. Really. Peruvians are a breed apart, especially the police. My father was stopped one night. He was asked for his licencia—in Peru it’s a brevete—and made to test all his lights. Then the officer opened the trunk and searched it. Having found nothing to justify a fine, he asked if my father had any weapons. When Dad said no, the officer expressed surprise. He pointed a pistol at my father’s face.
“But how come, doctor? This is a very dangerous area! I can sell you this one for your protection.”
With the barrel pointed at his nose, my father made the most prudent decision: he bought the gun. He handed over what cash he had on him, put the weapon in the glove compartment, and took off as fast as he could. Three blocks later, another officer stopped him and demanded his license. He made him test every light in the coche—in Peru we say carro—opened the trunk and searched it. Then he asked about weapons. My father proudly and smugly said yes and showed him the one he’d just acquired.
“And your permit to carry a weapon?” the officer demanded.
“Well . . . An officer sold it to me just a few blocks back.”
“Are you sure of that?”
“Of course I am.”
“So you’re slandering an officer of the law?”
“Listen, this sounds like a scam you and the other officer are running to rip me off.”
“No, doctor, it isn’t. And don’t disrespect me. That’s assault on an officer and contempt.”
Dad tried to protest a bit more, but he quickly realized that the way things were going he could wind up charged with attempted homicide. To keep his record clean, he was forced to accompany the officer to an ATM, withdraw more cash, and hand it over along with the pistol.
This is why, that weekend in Albacete, I was a bit frightened by the prospect of Borja confronting the police.
But in Albacete, more than 5,000 miles from Lima, things are different. Borja went up to the counter at the police station and said to the shift officer, “I’m here to protest the unjust towing of my car, you bloody fascist.”
Borja was in a terrible mood. He whispered to me that if the police beat him, I was to run out in the street and get some civilians to come and witness the abuse. But the officer just smiled while bringing up the file on his computer.
“I see which one it is,” he said. “I had this car towed myself. It was in a crosswalk.”
“It wasn’t a crosswalk!”
As I said, Borja was furious.
“If you like, we can go and verify that it is,” the officer said with a smile that wasn’t the least sarcastic, just amiable. “As a matter of fact, I wasn’t going to tow it, but we got a complaint from the neighborhood that your car was blocking traffic.”
“That crosswalk sign was too small!”
“It’s the official size for crosswalk signs in Spain. If it were any larger, it would interfere with traffic.”
“. . .”
“Anyway, if you think there’s some irregularity, you can file a complaint. I’ll get you the necessary forms myself and help you fill them out if you have any problem.”
He said it all with the same smile. And it dawned on me that I’d spent half an hour abetting the paranoia of a man who made his living appearing in public wearing red underpants.
The fine left us without even enough money for bus tickets. We had to cross the city on foot to reclaim the car from an impound lot in the industrial belt. It was getting dark as we walked, and cars on the highway zipped past like shooting stars. It brought back memories of Chino Pajares, a gun owner who knew how to handle the police.
* * * *
I met Chino in Chorrillos in 1992 shortly after a car bomb had gone off on Calle Tarata. We’d been to a party at the house of a mutual friend. It was early morning, and we were still pretty drunk. Since we were headed to the same neighborhood, we crossed a pedestrian bridge to the Route 10 bus stop, the one that goes to the cemetery. Halfway across the bridge, it occurred to Chino that this was a good spot for a photo, and we entertained ourselves by taking half a dozen in assorted poses.
But the fun didn’t last long. An armored personnel carrier and a jeep awaited us at the foot of the bridge. Some marines demanded our documents and the camera. Its flash lit up half the military base surrounding the pedestrian bridge, they said. They advised us that it was forbidden to use the bridge after ten at night and that a state of emergency was in effect. They didn’t return our documents. Or the camera. We were loaded onto the APC full of soldiers instead. A draftee sat next to the door. He couldn’t have been more than eighteen, but he had a rifle. A Kalashnikov, I think. We started to move.
Fifteen minutes later we still hadn’t reached our destination, and I began to suspect we weren’t headed for police headquarters in Chorrillos, as we would have been in a normal sweep, but to a place some distance away. I quietly whispered my concern to Chino, who nodded and turned toward the soldier with the rifle. He gazed at him in silence. Then, as if he’d figured something out, he said, “Kid, it looks to me as if the safety on your weapon isn’t set right. It could jam on you in a skirmish.”
Chino patted him on the shoulder. The soldier didn’t know whether to be grateful for the advice or to open fire. A corporal told us to shut up and made Chino sit in the back. Once again I wondered where we were going, but I wondered most of all about the psychopathic idiot I was with.
As terror suspects, we were taken to the Anti-Terrorism Directorate on Avenida España. (Now it strikes me as an amusing irony that the antiterrorist headquarters should be on an avenue named in honor of Spain.) A lieutenant named Valdivia grilled us about our activities, intentions, predilections, and marital status. We were then put in a cellblock crawling with roaches, a few rats, and about a hundred terrorists. Then they locked us in a cell with a hole in the ground at one end to meet whatever physiological need might arise. When the lights went out, a prisoner shouted:
“Esos pitucos están pitos?”
In my country, that was a way of asking if those snotty rich kids were still virgins.
The following day, as we disinfected the bathrooms on orders from above, we learned who had inquired about our sexual status. It was a gentleman called El Mosca—the Fly. He was also swabbing bathrooms. First impressions aside, the Fly was a good guy. He realized right away that we didn’t look much like terrorists. He felt he could trust us, and told us his secret.
“You know what, kid? I’m a house burglar. I steal cars, I do stickups, and I killed someone but only because I had to. And sometimes, strictly out of need, I find a bitch to rape. But a terrorist? Hell no! I’m a decent guy.”
The Fly was indignant for a reason. The terrorists were very disagreeable. They had no sense of humor and didn’t mix with anyone who didn’t belong to their group. The hard-core militants from Shining Path even regarded members of Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement—Peru’s other terrorist group—as a bunch of useless fags. And their disdain was reciprocated. Our only contact with them came from reading slogans scratched on the cell walls. We spoke only to the Fly, who taught Chino Pajares how to use a knife, always moving from side to side, never attacking head-on.
We spent four days and four nights in the custody of the Anti-Terrorism Directorate. Each morning Lieutenant Valdivia grilled us with the same questions to see if we’d contradict ourselves. At noon our parents brought us food to share with the other inmates. When we were finally let go, Lieutenant Valdivia returned the camera minus the film.
“You were locked up because you were assholes, not suspects,” he said.
And he laughed.
Weeks later I read in the newspaper that during the confusion of a riot in the antiterrorist prison, an inmate had received six gunshots by police and died. His name was Rodolfo Portugal Peña, alias El Mosca. I imagined Lieutenant Valdivia aiming his revolver at our friend’s head, but the newspaper didn’t say who fired.
That night in memory of the Fly, Chino and I had a few beers at a bar in Barranco. We talked for eight hours straight. I learned that one of his hobbies was the writing of excellent poetry, and another was driving drunk. Early that morning was the first time we were stopped by the police rather than a squad of marines.
The fact is, Chino was pretty stupid. He was headed down Avenida Benavides at sixty miles an hour with half a bottle of whiskey between his legs and the other half in his bloodstream. He was on the lookout for an old lady or a baby carriage he could run down. When the officer came to ticket us, he couldn’t believe his eyes.
“Have you lost your mind, kid, or what?” he said.
That’s when I learned of Chino’s great talent. Visibly nervous and with tears in his eyes (I have no idea how he summoned up the tears, but there they were), he replied, “I’m sorry, boss, but my mother had cancer. And she got better, boss! The tumor is gone. It’s a miracle. So please, just give me the ticket—the fine, that is—because I’m headed right straight to the hospital.”
The cop was so overcome by this news that he let us go. A man’s mother is sacred, he said. Chino went so far as to beg him for the ticket—in Spain they say multa, but in Peru we say papeleta (what a drag to write and translate at the same time)—because, despite everything, he felt he deserved it. The officer absolutely refused to fine him, and that was that. Before he let us go, he gave us a pair of tickets to one of those police raffles, but we never won.
Chino was so talented that he wasted no time getting into politics. While still in law school, he got himself a job as a congressional adviser. With the extra pay he bought a bigger car, but not just to show off. In Lima, he said, small cars get no respect. Or did he say that about politics? I don’t recall for sure.
The new car, a Corolla, had two unexpected consequences. First, he grew even fiercer behind the wheel, and, second, he stopped writing poetry. He was quite a good poet, and he still read a lot. He even had a huge poster of Bukowski over his bed right next to the Penthouse Pet of the Year for 1991. But now he wrote only for Pasión Popular, a magazine for the hooligans who supported Universitario, a Lima soccer club. He exhorted the goon squads of La U to knock heads and destroy everything in their path in the case of defeat, so the whole world would know the University was in mourning. I got a good laugh from his Pasión Popular pieces, but one day I asked why he’d quit writing poetry. He gave me a long, pitiful look. He took a deep drag on his cigarette and said, “Haven’t you realized that all writers are fags with no future?”
I hadn’t realized that. I still haven’t.
What he didn’t forsake was his way with the police. On one occasion he wound up driving the wrong way in the fast lane along the waterfront. We were more than a little drunk at the time, but it was fun. When the officer stopped us and asked for his license, Chino reached for his membership card in the bar association. The officer said, “I asked for your license, young fellow.”
Chino apologized, and from a glove box stuffed with two bags of cocaine and a stalk of marijuana he retrieved his congressional identification card.
The officer was annoyed. “Listen, what are you trying to tell me?”
Chino looked at the officer as if the answer were obvious. For Chino everything was always perfectly clear.
“Nothing, boss. I’m just letting you know I’m a public servant, you understand? Because in Congress I serve the public, right?”
“Uh-huh . . .” The officer was doing his best to follow this reasoning.
“And you, too, are a public servant, a policeman who upholds law and order . . . Isn’t that so?”
“Of course . . .”
“And since we’re both public servants, I’m sure we’ll meet again. Don’t you think so?”
The officer agreed. He forgave the slipup but warned us he was doing so for the last time. He held up traffic so Chino could get turned around and on his way. The cop was a nice guy.
A month later Chino bought the aforementioned revolver. It made him happy. He had a full cleaning kit and several kinds of bullets, including, as he proudly noted, some that were forbidden by international treaty. He spent whole days polishing and caressing his weapon. I never saw him care for a woman the way he cared for that gun. Women he just fucked. The whole day. Once we spent a weekend at the beach together with our girlfriends. Chino never left his bedroom. It was truly incredible. I seemed impotent by comparison. But when he wasn’t fucking that girl he was fighting with her. On the other hand, I never saw him fight with his gun. It was his true love. As for me, I never cared for guns. When I asked why he bought one, he replied, “Open your eyes, asshole. The day you least expect it, everybody will be killing one another. Everything’s going to hell.”
“You mean the country?” I asked.
“I mean the whole world,” he asserted.
Whenever he talked like that, he always looked at me with pity. According to him, I didn’t understand a thing.
In time, his fortunes rose even higher. Following Fujimori’s reelection, his boss was named Vice Minister for Security, and Chino Pajares began working even more closely with the police. For a while he traveled the length and breadth of the country opening new police stations. This at a time when his classmates were earning three thousand dollars a month with private law firms. He didn’t make a third of that, but he had fun. He used to say his fondest dream was to have his own firm someday, make enough to get by on, and spend the rest of his time defending the police (who were truly underpaid) and victims of police brutality (who had endured true suffering).
What concerned Chino above all else was the training of police. He considered it his duty to make sure they had good manners and behaved themselves. On one occasion he walked into a police station where a sergeant and a corporal were taking the statement of an alleged rape victim. The officers began their questioning by asking if the girl liked to party, if she wore miniskirts, if she danced cheek to cheek, if she liked arousing men, if she liked intimate medical exams. What did she think of the officers themselves? The interview began to seem more like a second rape than a criminal investigation.
An indignant Chino stormed into the cops’ office, told the girl to step outside, and confronted the officers with an air that made them too afraid to question his authority.
“What do you think?” he said to the sergeant. “If I rape you, is it your fault?”
“You heard me! Suppose I get a couple of agents to help me tie you to the table and one after the other we fuck you in the ass.”
“Have some respect for me, doctor.”
“Don’t talk to me about respect. I’m asking you a question, and I want an answer. Is it or isn’t it your fault if we rape you?”
“. . . No.”
“And why not? Don’t you go to parties? What about it? Answer me, ratface!”
“Listen, I don’t allow . . .”
“Yes or no?”
Chino’s effrontery was amazing. Unless he had the authority to do what he was doing, he ran the medium-term risk of being skinned alive with a safety razor. But the cop was in no position to react violently to an official of indeterminate rank from the ministry. He lowered his head and spoke in a whisper.
“. . . Yes.”
“So you do go to parties. And you drink, and you dance cheek to cheek. No doubt your hands wander a bit, too, don’t they?”
“But, doctor, that’s different.”
“What’s the difference, numskull? What? You’ve got a fat ass. Aren’t you arousing us? With an ass like that, we just have to rape you, don’t we? And those pants you’re wearing are pretty tight, mamacita.”
The officer didn’t reply, but he didn’t like what he was hearing.
“All right, from now on you’re going to treat young women with respect, got it? What you need to find out is if they’ve been raped or not. The question of who’s to blame is up to the judge. I don’t want to catch you being stupid again because, if I do, I swear I’ll run you in myself. Do I make myself clear?”
“That’s what I like to hear. And get yourself a uniform that doesn’t make your ass stick out, all right, sonny?”
“Sir . . .”
“What’s your problem?”
The sergeant stuttered a bit before speaking, but there was something he needed to know.
“Who are you?”
It was a tense moment.
Chino got so close to the man he was nearly breathing down his neck. His hand was very close to the officer’s crotch—he told me so himself—as if he were going to grab his nuts like a couple of antistress balls. Without being touched, the officer could already feel the discomfort that rises all the way to the throat when the lower regions are disturbed. He closed his eyes, and Chino said, “You don’t want to know, scumbag. You don’t even want to know.”
He turned his back on the sergeant and walked out. He didn’t do it to annoy or humiliate the man. He did it so that in the future this cop would conduct himself with more institutional dignity.
Chino’s esteem for the police was so great that he was soon named Director of Internal Affairs. It was as if he’d become one of those plainclothes operatives who suddenly turn up in police films. “Internal Affairs,” they announce, and everyone quakes. Only now the role was for real, and it belonged to Chino.
At first he had trouble getting anyone to take him seriously in the new job. Not because he was a civilian but because he was twenty-five, white, and single. It made them suspect he was queer, and cops don’t like taking orders from queers. They like being investigated by queers even less. However, when the rumor got around that he owned a weapon and beat his girlfriend, even the generals began to respect him.
If he ever did it at all, he didn’t beat his girlfriend for long (I never asked if he did). One night, months after his promotion, Chino offered me a ride home as we left a bar. On our way to the car we ran into his girlfriend, whose name I don’t even remember. Chino asked me to excuse him a moment. For the next half hour they yelled at each other in the middle of the street. While I stood aside smoking one cigarette after another, they called each other every name they could think of. Then we started walking toward the car. We’d gone a few steps when Chino remembered a few things he hadn’t yelled at her and went back to do so. This took another half hour of his shouting and my cigarettes. We went through four iterations of the same thing before I emptied the pack and decided to go home on my own. I never saw the girl again.
To console himself for this loss, Chino bought a dog he affectionately named Chimbombo—faggot—and signed up to use the firing range on Avenida Pardo where he met people who shared his tastes and enthusiasms. These included a member of the Special Operations Force who fought in the war with Ecuador and once killed two thieves who had broken into his house. He taught Chino what he termed “lesson number one.”
“When you shoot someone, don’t fire at random like some scared girl. One shot between the eyes has to be enough. If you fire too many times and your target is armed, you’re screwed because he’s only going to shoot once.”
When Chino repeated the lesson to me, I replied, “You talk as if you’d already killed someone.”
“I never killed anyone,” he said, “but one of these days I will.”
He got his chance one evening when we were drinking beer with Bigfoot Roncoso. We hadn’t even had time to get very drunk when the Twin Cuéllar rushed into the house screaming that Chino’s car was being stolen. Chino didn’t waste a second. Seeing a chance to kill someone legally and in self-defense, he ran into the street, the rest of us close behind. We were just in time to see the thieves take off in the car. Chino took calm and careful aim. He waited for the car to turn the corner and afford him a side shot that would take out the driver. I wanted to stop him, but it’s not prudent to interrupt someone with a firearm in his hand. The car began to turn. It was almost in his sights when an old woman with a walker came around the corner. Chino shouted, “Out of the way! Move it!” but the little old lady paid no heed whatsoever. She stopped on the corner for a breath of air and only moved many, many seconds later, after Chino’s car had vanished into the smudged Lima horizon.
Furious, Chino turned his pistol on me. It was a reflex action as if, having aimed, he had to shoot someone. Nothing personal, just bad luck. He had the barrel pointed at my forehead. I was terrified. In the past, as a party joke, Chino had poked the gun barrel against my neck just to scare me a little. It worked because I remembered Skinny Cacho, a schoolmate who was once the butt of the same joke and was inadvertently shot. Skinny said he didn’t feel a thing. He went back to his dormitory (just to top things off, his school group was on a spiritual retreat), but upon taking his shirt off to shower, he saw that the back was drenched in blood. Miraculously, the bullet had gone through his neck without touching a single vital organ. Skinny had the scars on his neck and his whole high-school class to back up his story. All in all, the fear of having Chino put a gun to my throat at parties never came close to the terror I felt when he took aim at my head like someone who needed to pull the trigger just to feel better.
But he didn’t shoot me.
He just said, Shit. Goddamn old woman. And then he lowered the weapon.
* * * *
One day, in solidarity with Chino and my country, I helped reduce police corruption. He asked me himself. It was part of a plan of his that by some miracle the minister had approved. Actually, the most costly kind of police corruption has to do with major contracts for the acquisition of uniforms, equipment, and weapons. But the corruption most visible to the public involves traffic cops who have nothing to do with big contracts. They just sponge mechanical pencils and soda pop from motorists or sell raffle tickets to give their transactions an appearance of legality.
This is why Chino was able to convince the minister he could ease pressures to investigate major contracts by improving the image of beat cops. So he phoned me, and two days later I was in the waiting room of the Ministry of Security to see Counselor Chino Pajares. Next to me sat a fat little man with a bald spot and a gold ring. Out of boredom we started a conversation.
“And what are you doing here?” he asked me.
“Well, I’m here to see a counselor.”
“Really? A counselor,” he said with interest.
“I have a business at the international airport. I’m the one who puts the plastic covers on baggage.”
“You are? Then I’ve seen your equipment and your covers.”
“Of course, doctor,” he said. I was wearing a tie, and that made me a doctor. “I’m trying to get Customs to make plastic covers compulsory.”
He watched me as if expecting to be congratulated or, like a kindergarten pupil, to be rewarded with a small smile.
“And why should they be compulsory?” I asked.
“Because then we’d make a lot of money—that’s why, doctor! That is, if you could use your influence with the counselor, we could split the profits.”
He gave me his card, but before we could work out a deal, Chino called me into his office. He served me a whiskey. We sat down, and I told him about the entrepreneur with the baggage covers. He laughed.
“That guy won’t get anywhere. If covers were compulsory, we’d put them on ourselves. He’ll be better off if no one pays any attention to him.”
He then went on to tell me how the anticorruption plan worked. He set goals, sketched graphics, and showed me statistics. I felt obliged to be candid.
“Chino, I don’t understand. Around here everybody’s corrupt, and so are you. Since when were you worried about police corruption?”
“You don’t get it, brother. It’s one thing to try to make a living, and something altogether different to besmirch the institution. The honor of the institution must be upheld.”
He spoke in a voice resonant with respect and solemnity. Chino surprised me more every day.
“And why can’t that institution be besmirched? Aren’t all the others . . .”
“The Police aren’t like the others. Haven’t you seen their motto? ‘Our shield is honor.’”
I had no answer to that. Chino kept talking, now about my job. He asked if I had a license. I didn’t. He asked if I’d ever driven a car before. I had and badly. He asked if I was interested in earning extra income. I was. He smiled. He offered me more to drink and asked if I wouldn’t mind pouring a little alcohol on my clothes. I needed to smell bad, he explained.
That same afternoon I left the ministry behind the wheel of a yellow sports car that had been seized from a drug trafficker. The vehicle was well equipped with a sound system, air-conditioning, and a minicamera mounted in the passenger door and pointed at my window. My instructions were to break every traffic law in the book and get myself stopped. That was it. When the cop asked for a bribe, the camera would transmit live sound and video straight to a prosecutor posted in a van following my sports car. Chino and two plainclothes officers would also be in the van—drinking whiskey, as Chino explained it to me—ready to leap out and arrest the cop on charges of corruption. If the experiment worked, the tapes would be made available for television news reports aimed at discouraging police misconduct. And all thanks to me.
The first part of the job was easy. I’m such a bad driver that I went the wrong way on the first street I entered. On the second—the one that goes by the Clínica Ricardo Palma—I got in the way of two ambulances, and on the third I ran a red light. There, at last, lurking behind a wall, was a cop on the prowl for reckless drivers. He did his duty and stopped me.
“Good afternoon. Your license, please.”
“I don’t have one, sir.”
The gravity of the situation, its tragic dimensions, seemed to worry the officer.
“But you ran a red light.”
“As a matter of fact, I did.”
“And your registration?”
“I don’t have it on me right now, officer.”
Bad. Bad. Bad.
“Uh-oh, you smell of liquor, too, don’t you?”
“That’s right. I’ve been drinking.”
He smiled with satisfaction.
“I’ll have to give you a ticket.”
“I have no choice.”
For four and a half minutes he didn’t say a word. Then he said, “This is going to cost you two hundred soles.”
“I expect it will.”
“Uh, I see you’re rolling in money.”
“No, sir. The fact is I don’t have two hundred soles.”
“I don’t mean you any harm.”
“Of course not. I understand.”
“What’s more, the place where you have to pay is way out in El Agustino. You can’t possibly be headed out there.”
“I didn’t know fines had to be paid in El Agustino.”
“It’s a new provision.”
“What do you know.”
He meditated for another two or three minutes. I thought about Chino laughing it up with a whiskey in his hand. I was getting bored. I said, “How can we straighten this out?”
“That’s up to you. I mean you no harm.”
He placed his traffic manual next to me on the window ledge. It was open just enough for me to slip a bill between the pages, but he asked nothing worthy of prosecutorial intervention.
“You committed a very serious violation. It says so right here in the section on traffic lights.”
“Yes, I see that.”
He made sure I saw it clearly.
“And here’s the part on intoxicants. I’m not going to breath-test you. No offense, but some things are pretty obvious, aren’t they? Just between us, I mean.”
I didn’t say a thing. He finally stepped away from the car and walked around a bit while whistling a popular song. When he saw I wasn’t moving, he approached, “Well, you look like a nice kid.”
“A gentleman from head to toe.”
“I’m going to trust you. You can go now, but if you’re kind enough to stop by, I’ll be here until eight this evening.”
He stopped traffic to help me get on my way.
We tried many more officers, with similar results.
The failure of his anticorruption campaign left Chino seriously down in the dumps, and he began putting all sorts of nasty junk into his body. He got in the habit of coming to my house with a six-pack of beer. He’d sit down, put a bag of coke on the table, and take his pistol out from under his belt. I regularly had to remind him I was living with my mother, and it was better if she didn’t see such things. He’d stow the coke, but the weapon stayed put because he had a license that made it perfectly legal.
When his dog, Chimbombo, died, he dropped out of sight for a while. I think he took it very hard. He had the same love for his dog as he had for his revolver. To make matters worse, he got fired from the ministry for making a nuisance of himself and because they suspected he was gay. I thought it would kill him, but following an absence of several months, he showed up at my house one night in a very good mood.
“Tomorrow I’m going north for the weekend to see my old man in Tumbes. The Twin is going with me. Do you want to come?”
We left the following day.
It never occurred to me that someone such as Chino had a father. Though I was curious, there was no mention of him during the 150 miles to Tumbes. While not talking about his father, we shot at pelicans on the beaches along the way. We smoked and got high on the Twin’s stash.
The Twin was a real animal. He was an amateur sharpshooter who was into drugs he designed himself. As well as all the others. He liked to call pharmacies and order injectable vials of a cat tranquilizer called Ketalar. He’d pour it into a cup and microwave to it to boil off the liquid and leave a residue of crystals for the Twin to scrape up with a credit card and snort. It was no big deal, but it pleased the Twin to be able to order drugs from a pharmacy. This country’s making real progress, he liked to say.
On the trip to Tumbes we had only one brush with the police. They were doing routine traffic checks, and, as was his wont, Chino was driving about five hundred miles an hour. He jammed on the brakes as the vehicle fell forcibly into line. Once it stopped, he climbed into the back seat. When an officer came to look in the window, Chino said the driver had gotten out of the car and run off. No, we don’t know where he went. No, we can’t move the car because we’re all drunk. It would be illegal. The officer moved the car to one side of the road and left us there. And that’s where we stayed for the three hours until the traffic check ended. The incident occurred in Huanchaco, but that was all right because incidents are always occurring in Huanchaco.
The problem was that when we got to the father’s house, it was already nighttime. The elder Chino Pajares had a girlfriend with dark skin and a huge ass. He greeted us all in the same way—not as if we were all his sons, but as if none of us were. He said nothing while we ate, then he left to spend the night in Ecuador on business.
* * * *
Beginning here, I’ll tell the tale as it was told to me or as I figured it out for myself. Once they were in Ecuador, around midnight, the girlfriend with the big ass tells the father he ought to spend time with his son, that he never sees him, that Chino is a good kid, that they should have a talk about the troubles between them. Or not have a talk, but at least spend time together. The father drags his feet for a while but finally gives in. He pats her huge ass, kisses her, and turns around.
They get back to the border, cross the bridge over the stench of the dry riverbed, and head for home. Halfway there a passenger van starts honking at them to get out of the way. Since the street is so narrow, the father doesn’t move over. The driver of the van—or combi as the locals call it—gets angry. The father yells back, and his girlfriend begs him to calm down. The van tries to get around them and forces them off the road. The father feels the scrape of metal on metal and gives the steering wheel a violent tug. The vehicles jockey for position and collide. The damage is minor, but the drivers get out to inspect. The father is indignant. He claims he was hit from behind, so it’s the van’s fault. The driver of the van tells him to go to hell. As they’re about to come to blows, a patrolman appears.
The patrolman speaks to one party first and then the other. The father refuses to give him money, then sees the van driver offering the patrolman cash in small bills. The father gets very angry, starts shouting, has a heart attack, and dies on the spot, right in the road. He suffers no death throes, he just dies.
As a result, the officer leaves the scene and so does the van. The girlfriend is left to await the dawn with the corpse and her huge ass.
The body gets to the house around four, already cold, rather stiff, and with its eyes open. Before telling us what happened, the girlfriend bursts into tears and vomits. Chino, who knows about these things, neither cries nor vomits. He says we need a coroner’s report and a death certificate to file charges on that fucking cop who doesn’t know who he’s messing around with. The Twin prepares a mixture of diazepam and Ketalar for the girlfriend. Then we try putting the father in the trunk of Chino’s car, but he said we’d be better off sitting him up in the backseat and having the Twin hold him upright. We set out in search of a hospital.
Chino now drives as if he’s at the controls of a spaceship. You can’t even see the trees at the side of the road, though I wonder if there are any trees in Tumbes, where I’ve never seen anything but petty bureaucrats and whores. The point is that we’re going so fast a police siren orders us to stop. Chino obeys. He slows down. He kills the motor. He lights a cigarette and waits. We all wait. The father waits with his eyes open and doesn’t smoke. The officer gets out of the patrol car and walks toward us. In a very low voice the Twin says, “What are you doing, Chino?”
“I was pulled over. I stopped.”
Chino is in a vile mood. He dislikes being pulled over. The Twin speaks very slowly now as if talking to a five-year-old.
“Chino, wake up. There’s a bag of marijuana in this car plus a couple of crack rocks, all kinds of pills, three firearms, and a corpse. Please. Step on the gas right now.”
Chino doesn’t say a word. No one says a word, the father least of all. The officer approaches the car from the rear. He’s barely an arm’s length away. He starts speaking to us. But the patrol car’s idling engine drowns out his voice. The officer walks away, growing smaller in the mirror. And the father doesn’t say a word; he doesn’t yell at anybody.
There ensues a high-speed chase worthy of a gringo movie but set in the streets of a Peruvian soap opera. We crash into trash cans, knock over a kiosk, and hit a dog, I think. The patrol cars behind us are in hot pursuit. It seems to me there are several patrol cars, but I can’t be sure because my eyes are closed. Actually, I’m not so sure about the car chase either. There aren’t that many patrol cars in Tumbes. But I am frightened. One of the patrol cars cuts us off. Now we must either stop or kill him.
We prefer to stop.
The enraged officer leaps from his car. He yells something we don’t hear. Chino wants to do something, but he doesn’t know what. The Twin is crying. That’s right. Crying. But he doesn’t vomit. The officer comes closer. He peers in our window.
“All right, pal, what gives?” he says to Chino. “Are you drunk or what the fuck is your problem?”
For the first time in his life, Chino is at a loss for words.
“Look, boss, we’re trying to get my old man to the hospital, and we’re in a big hurry.”
The officer looks at me, he looks at the Twin Cuéllar, and only then do his eyes focus on the father slumped rigidly against the window. He looks at him hard for a long time, at least it seems to me like a long time. At last he says, “You’re right. The gentleman does look a little pale.”
“Right,” Chino says.
“Let’s go,” I say.
The Twin embraces the cadaver. His lips and eyes start to tremble. He caresses the cold face of the father with his cheek that is wet with tears. He says, “All of a sudden he turned pale, then he fainted.”
We all did our best to cry.
“No problem,” the officer says. “If it’s an emergency, carry on. We’ll escort you to the hospital.”
And so we reached the hospital under police escort, and the patrol cars were gone before we could get the father up the steps to the entrance. The Twin clung to the cadaver and didn’t stop crying the whole way.
In the morning, while awaiting the required paperwork, I mentioned to Chino that I wanted to go to Spain. To live. Chino took a deep breath and closed his eyes, reveling in the first rays of morning sunshine.
“Spain,” he sighed. “I’d liked to have lived in Spain at the time of the Civil War. I don’t know on which side, though. Either one. It must have been a hell of a time.”
The next day we returned to Lima.
I never saw him again.