The Plantain Curtain by Peter Skow

             During a brief stay in the tropics, I took up with a cooperative of cacao growers.  My job at the start was to secure the loyalty of wealthy northern chocolatiers by any means, but mainly over the telephone.  In previous years, I had woven a web of friends--small and sturdy, like a pocket square de Nimes--in the chocolate-hungry parts of the world, and their kind words made me a shoo-in for the post.  Libelers have often cited my failure to “work the fields” (a pitifully predictable lot, they use this phrase without fail) as proof of my lily-livered, soft-handed lack of character.  They are wrong on two counts.  Firstly, the cooperative straddled the clayey soils that drain the eastern part of the island.  Scores of river-cut hills were the result, so fields were a topographical impossibility.  Secondly, cacao grows on a short kind of tree, which by its nature cannot comprise a field as can tobacco, cotton, or cane; even the great flat plantations along the Volta might more properly be called groves or woods.  In any case, my smooth talk was better suited to the office, and it was there that Profit showed me the way.

            The manager was a short, pompous man named Francisco Ramsés Seybold Trujillo whom the workers mockingly called “el caudillito.”  He once sent me a memorandum containing three consecutive semicolons.  I fit five into my response, though I do not think that he noticed.  In fact, he seemed to genuinely enjoy my company. “¡Dony!” rang his greeting cry, its vowels clipped, as he daily marched up to my desk.  He often spoke to me about baseball, and in particular about the exploits of the San Francisco Giants, an unpopular, third-rate team at the time.  From this I gathered that he believed me to hail from that city and was trying to befriend me.  I obliged him, correctly guessing that he might later prove a useful ally, though I had not the heart to explain that I had never visited Bayside Babylon.  When I was small, a lanky salaryman joked to me that no one went hungry in its streets, for the sea-fog was as thick and rich as soup.  Immediately, my mother’s Tuesday borscht filled my throat and nostrils, drowning me in sorrow and sour cream.  The thought of that fate has since then marred the city in my mind.

            Each morning at dawn I ate fried white cheese, mashed plantains, and a type of sausage halfway between a chorizo and the plastic-wrapped abomination that the American culinary-industrial complex has termed the “breakfast sausage.” (Jimmy Dean, your forefathers weep)  To the locals, the plantain mash was mangú, and an Illinoisan magician-turned-philanthropist once told me a funny little story about the root of the name.  Years ago, he said, when the Inheritor of the Big Stick had ordered a military occupation of my temporary homeland, a young soldier lost his way on leave.  A kind old woman gave him shelter for the night and fed him the following morning.  The boy, half starved, thanked her without end, dug up a heaping spoonful of the first dish she laid before him, and heaved it down his gullet.  So overcome was he with starchy fullness that he bellowed, “Man, good!” and in the storied Hispano-American tradition of D-dropping, mangú was christened.  The tale is, of course, ridiculous, but my former-performer friend told it with a farm-boyish earnestness that shone through decades of big-city soul-selling and corporate grant-writing, and I always wanted to believe it.

            After breakfast, I ran for half an hour around a loop that took me into town and back again.  I reached the peak of my speed when I was farthest from home, as comets do.  I could hear my footsteps along the country roads, which gave a satisfying smack when the fine gravel was wet and spattered my calves with cold water, but in town already the morning din of shouts and motorbikes and bright canteen music was enough to drown my full-bellied breaths, and a dim panic set in that needled me forward in search of loneliness.  Always my footstep-solitude waited for me past the service station near the entrance to the highway, where the tarmacadam gave way suddenly to sandy, rutted roads.  Not forty steps beyond that frontier, cattle fields opened up to one side, guarded by barbed wire slung between living fence-posts.  These were the cuttings of an outstandingly hardy tree common to that part of the world whose severed limbs take root of their own will, determined to live forever.  It was my habit to snatch a bit of bark from the last of them and eat it before I turned off onto the final stretch toward home, as a local legend I had read about at Nought had done during a cross-country race.

            The sight of me pounding forward, my gaze as fixed as a locomotive’s, frightened the townsfolk in the beginning.  Some of them leapt from the footpath and tumbled into the street in order to get clear of me, either shrieking with fear as they did so or seething with rage as they recovered, while others bewilderedly joined me and ran for a short while and then stopped when my steady steps and constant pleas of “permiso” let them know that there was no close-by threat for them to flee.  Within a week, cheers had replaced the furious oaths of my first outing, and small children would gather in swarms to rile me on.  After a month, these, too, generally stopped.  I had faded away as much as I could, though shopkeepers remained eager to point me out to travelers, sometimes vaulting over countertops and toppling tables with an arm outstretched all the while, as if I were a harmless folk-tale monster come to life, a dawny Grendel, rolling in and out through the hill-fog with a smile and a wave; their machetes stayed sheathed, their coffee-benches unbroken.  “¡Mira! ¡Mira!” they cried.  “¡Ahí va!  ¡El gringo que corre aunque nadie le persigue!”  Of my countless epithets, I enjoyed this one the most while it lasted: the gringo who runs even though nobody chases him.

            Teresa owned a canteen that opened onto the main road, and in its kitchen she cooked brown beans, creole chicken, and wide pans of rice.  I met her one morning as she chucked a bucketful of wastewater across the perilously narrow footway in front of her business place, heedless of my speedy oncoming mass.  The water spread out, fanlike, thanks to a flick of her wrist, and I crashed through the screen.  She started at the sound of it, which to me was as though I had embodied a whale at the moment that it breached the surface of the sea, shattering the hundred-mile stillness of the pacific air on a clear day with its own (my own) monstrous body.  She apologized ceaselessly for several seconds and proffered a dish towel, but I declined.  It was a hot day, and I appreciated the chance to cool off.  Then she gave me a look familiar to runners and foreigners of all kinds--a slight knitting of the brow, a subtle once-over with the eyes, the mouth open by a twig’s breadth, waiting hopelessly for words--that was gone in a flash, and invited me to dine with her.

            I returned in the evening, and I was struck by how little she minded my celebrity.[1]  Our conversation began with a question about my day at work, as though we had met one another years ago at the makeshift local dance-hall with cheeks flushed, and taken shelter under a broad-leaved tree by the side of the road when the rain-clouds opened as we walked home, and held each other for a moment, and kissed and lain down in the darkness, and been married in the concrete church in town, and raised four children, of which three moved to the capital to find work and one died when a cane-truck struck him down by the side of the road, and grown old and not happy but content.  To her, my running was apparently a personal strangeness whose origin she did not care to know.  All the better, for her story bore discussion far better than my weird morning routine could have.

            She had never married, nor ever shown much interest in the matter; all the men in the town were fools in her eyes, and her onetime suitors especially so.  She spoke the fondest of a certain Yohany, who one day discovered a silken morning coat in the dusty corner of a ruined colonial house and wore it to the canteen every day at lunchtime.  He sat with his back as straight as a lamppost and waited wordlessly for his meal, and when Teresa emerged with it he invited her to sit with him, and sometimes she accepted if it were not too busy.  In truth, she said, he was good company.  His father had raised him with rough hands, but he loved books, and so he imagined a new life out of embarrassment.  He insisted on speaking with a quixotically affected accent, doubtless in order to puff himself up with class, but it only succeeded in giving the impression that he had a terrible lisp.  Once he had finished eating, he wiped his mouth slowly and thoroughly and then abruptly stood up and left, always with a half-heard remark about returning to his “hacienda” and a sidelong glance and a ghost of a grin, the only cracks in his ruse that he ever showed.  Yohany’s folly sprang from the bottom of his gifted mind, (he went on to handle the computer-banks of a shipping company up North, which even in those days was no idiot’s job) the trickish part of the brain that reads spurn as love.  He was Teresa’s man if ever there was one, I gathered, but whatever she felt, she loved freedom too much.

            Her father had bequeathed the canteen to her, and on the day she buried him she swore to do him proud by it.  Under her, the canteen flourished, and she lived well within her margins.  She bought bigger rice-pans to boost production; she saved on cleaning costs with waterproof tablecloths; and hers was the first place in town to boast waist-high electronic speakers, over which she played the radio.  Yet she could not grow the damned thing any further.  Her mother, sick since her husband’s death, refused to die, and Teresa had to compromise in order to care for her.  The man who sold her rice, for instance, who scalped her with every sale, she swore, lived too far from town to visit in an hour or two, the widest window she could afford, and while harsh words can fly like bullets into one end of the telephone line, out of the other they drift like paper airplanes, and, believe it or not, his were the best prices in the entire province!

            I saw it then.  In her burned the same coal-fire that has blasted me onward ever since that day years ago when I solemnly promised to forge my lucre and conquer the world, only she had been fighting a stronger current than I, fueled by mighty tropical rainfalls, and her strength wavered.  My discovery came at the end of the meal, so after a silence I excused myself and assured her that we would meet again.

            Álvaro worked at the service station by the entrance to the highway, where he stood above his brutish and cowardly comrades.  Those triffidlike men lazed about their turf all day, motionless until a customer arrived and triggered their instinct to lash out and fleece him.  Though their sleeves were short--indeed, on the hottest days they stripped to their waists--they carried many tricks to trap weary, unwary travelers.  The simplest was the most successful: while filling up the tank, one of the trolls would crinkle his nose and murmur badish omens, signaling the others to lift the hood and investigate the engine.  Then they would all get worried looks, point vaguely, whisper, and shake their heads and click their tongues until at last Rambo, the leader, took his baseball cap in both hands and approached the car’s owner with eyes downcast to explain that the carburetor was utterly wasted and should have been replaced a long time ago (note the general time frame).  Luckily, or rather not, they could set the thing right in a few hours for a fee.  Then they removed the carburetor to a worktable indoors and scrubbed and polished the surface so furiously that it gleamed even in darkness, like a cat’s eyes, and put it back into the car.  At the end of their performance, they gathered in a line and wished upon the driver safe travels and the blessing of the good Lord Jesus Christ, who cures all sicknesses and guards the weak against the cruel, or some other improvisation along the same lines.  What scammed money they did not gamble away on games of dominoes, they spent on whores and whiskey, and so the cycle, like that of the rains, began anew.

            Other schemes included diluting their supplies of gasoline and propane, but the idiotic cocktails that they made could rarely move a motorbike more than a quarter mile, so they tended only to brew them when they were drunk.  They pined for the golden olden days of the dictatorship, when Rambo had stolen three army uniforms with automatic rifles to match and birthed their greatest ploy.  Back then, the rich often stopped by for a fill-up on their way to one of the fashionable national parks.  The key was to spot the nervous brow-twitch and white knuckles on the wheel that marked disgraced Party-members, and Rambo had a keen eye.  From that followed a signal behind the back and the gunslinging goons shuffled over, demanding papers.  Oftentimes the drivers gave up the paper that the boys really wanted right then, but even the stubborn ones left their seats with their wallets out once the rifle barrels began to test the window-gap like snakes.

            All of this Álvaro told me in the course of our short visits.  The heat sweltered in waves on the morning of my second run when I reached the edge of town, but through my sweat I saw him walk with measured steps to the edge of the road, grip a column with one hand and lean out holding a cup of water in the other.   The concrete foundation of the service station stood thigh-high at that point, and so, reaching down to meet me, clad in a white sleeveless shirt and blue jeans, he struck the figure of a kind of workingman’s angel to your thirsty narrator.  I took the cup with thanks, and we introduced ourselves.  The next day, I did not stop because I was not thirsty.  He smiled the same way whether I stopped or not, but after a time I felt I should explain myself.

            “You know, I’m sorry that I can’t always talk with you,” I told him at the next chance I got.  “You’re very kind.”  He waved his hand lazily, as if to bat away at the flies that hung (some were later hanged) in the syrupy air around his head.

            “My friends owe me nothing,” he said.  Here was the reply of a businessman!

            “Are you in charge here?” I asked.

            “Yes,” he said, and I was off, grinning.

            Over the coming weeks, I learned that though he was a loyal companion, Álvaro was not like Teresa and me.  He did not want to make his concrete domain any bigger, nor to franchise it.  “It is enough for me,” he said, and of the clowns in his employ: “The priest and the mayor don’t care, and neither do I.  As long as they’re here their plans will keep on being stupid and harmless.”  He had a way of sounding wise, even when his words left a sour, unprofitable taste in the mouth, likely because he was ultimately a wise man, but this you may discover on your own.  Read onward, friend.