UNITED STATES—After grabbing the leather clodhoppers Antonio remembered, with an access of despair, that he had not asked for the price. He stopped dead in his tracks, shouting at the vendor who was noting figures in his notebook.
“How much will you give it to me for?”
“Only ten lempiras, Don Antonio. You won’t be sorry. These shoes have a lifetime guarantee. They will last until they wear out. I’ll be there for you. I’ll pass by Chamelecón and Culuco. Guaranteed.”
Antonio was about to hurl the shoes at the feet of the cheeky vendor, when he remembered that he was in urgent need of them. We went away from the line, straying from the rowdy groups of country people toward the barracks. In the fonda of Bermudez, the other country people made accounts and paid the captain for their food. This one said:
“Antonio Aguilar is next. He owes fourteen days of food, a peso a day. That’s fourteen ‘indios’!”
Martin paid it out exactly, without betraying internal pain. This was another hallmark of the system, to call it something, it encouraged people to hide rather than expose their hurt.
“Captain Bermudez,” he muttered. “I’ll eat in your kitchen only for today,” Bermudez said.
Keen disgust and spite, showed in Bermudez’ grimace. He controlled his rage. He asked:
“Why? You don’t like the food I cook?”
The question was disarming.
“No it isn’t that, Captain,” Aguilar said. He already felt his resolve to stick to his guns dissolve; he was lost. He craved, with all his heart and hurt, he craved an existence beyond all this, even if it meant sacrificing the last atom of light. And in a way, Agular thought, it was like this; all the pettiness and grappling and scheming, it happened in a little part of the world which nobody paid attention to.
This wasn’t Germany or China, this was a little corner in the slender waste of lost and forgotten Spanish, French and British colonies and even as this happened they dis-happened. Am I alive, Aguilar thought, then he knew that the very definition of not being was simply not to hear within his weary skull that question any more, though it would still be within another weary skull in Africa or Siberia.
“It so happens that my patrona Clotilde will take care of me for eighty cents a day. Bermudez shrugged his shoulders, called another worker. Those on hand saw Tony Aguilar with surprise and ironic mirth, but he paying no heed beelined to the cook, who called him aside, winking with roguish eye and holding out a mendicant hand.
“Take your ‘indios,’ woman. All I’ve got left is to pay the cigarettes and guayabate. Many thanks, woman.
“You’re welcome. I see that you’re a man of your word. That’s how I like my men. You know the day I’d like to go to the finca and have a roll in the hay with me, just give me the sign. With pleasure whether for cash or credit.” And with that the coquettish cook, the flirting woman, strode off shimmying her hooker’s strong hips. Unlicensed. Strange things happened in the countryside.
In the plantation kitchens there was a great to-do. Here some of the banana peons paid the whole monthly food fee. Others still owed a portion; beyond that, a woman insulted indiscriminately without mercy a peasant who was making three payments, he owed her without paying an additional cent. The walking vendors of the barracks, going from cuzul to cuzul, collected from her clients and getting more merchandise on credit. It was all so very modern.
When Tony Aguilar was in his room, changing shoes, Daniel Guzmán harshed on him:
“What the hell are you doing, compá?”
Since Antonio didn’t understand, he sought to explain.
“I have stepped in poop with Captain Bermudez. Whoever wants to keep their job in spraying poison should eat in the kitchen, amigo, this Captain docks it off the pay.
“But it can’t be, my dear Guzman. You figure that the patrona, Clotilde gives me beans for seven hundred cents.”
“Doesn’t matter, even if you had your woman here to cook, she would always be obligated to cook. One is always obligated to eat where Bermudez lurks. It is a “mamona law” of the Foremen to make their little business, their side hustle. Since they deduct and place workers in their teams, nobody can say anything. So go along with the Captain and say you will eat in his kitchen. I recommend it for your own good.”
To be continued…
Graydon is the Wizard of Fiction.