All bright things fade;
darkness is lasting. As Broder Broschkus, declared enemy of all forms of Caribbean merriment, perspired his way up the steps to the “Casa de las tradiciones,” behind him a woman whom, after thirteen years of wedded bliss, he had all but forgotten, he still had only two words of Spanish to his name: “adios” and “caramba,” not counting yes/no, left/right and the numbers from one to ten. Dumbstruck with indignation at the brassy fanfares blaring out at him even here, he let his mind race through the hours remaining to be suffered through before their flight home, and felt tempted to give the bouncer not the expected tourist dollar but a good kick in the pants; naturally he had not the faintest inkling that he was to plunge to his death upon this very set of steps a mere two hours later. This package tour holiday was coming to an end, the suitcases already packed, and it was just before twelve on a Saturday afternoon beneath a colorless sky.
But how cool it was inside, a twilight haze! Although the percussionist was belaboring a horse’s skull with gusto, making the jaw emit a violent rattling sound, although the bass player had placed his lips to the curve of a jug so as to pluck sounds from its mouth with his thick, dark fingers, although the rest of the band was blowing into their axes with great fervor, the locals lay slumped in their rocking chairs, sipping from white plastic cups and smoking cigars that were being rolled for them by one of their number at the center of the room: When he raised his head to get a look at Broschkus—all the others seemed oblivious to his presence—the wrinkles fanned out across his coal-black face. Only a few small children—insofar as they weren’t busy playing hide and seek among the cowhide-covered stools and behind the squat rum barrels that served as tables—only a few children were dancing, right out in front of the musicians, their faces indifferent, their gyrations anything but. So this was it: the most famous bar in Santiago, whose praises Kristina had sung, citing the guidebook, in the most grandiose terms: crowning counterpoint to palm trees, water and sand, and she was doubtless about to declare it all “awesome” or “totally thrilling!” There was a smell of putrefaction, probably coming from the courtyard, chicken thighs or a dead cat rotting, there was a smell of spilled rum and sweaty shoes, with the occasional note of deep-frying or heavy perfume, and a fine thread of urine, acrid and precise, led the way into a back room where domino players were staring mutely at their tiles. If a warm breeze hadn’t just then come in through the window openings, Broschkus would surely have retreated on the spot.
As it was, however, he had scarcely traded the barman a pair of circular gestures of his index finger for a gap-toothed grin, had scarcely carried a mojito (for the señora, sí sí) and a surprisingly cold Cristal past a row of white-painted columns to the first available corner seat when he sank into a stupor. Beneath the music’s steady drone, the pink wooden walls with the photographs of famous singers—and even one of an enormous Jesus who towered up behind the in-the-flesh singers complete with a mitre and a snakelike writhing sword—dissolved into a diffuse Latin melancholy; only at great intervals were there little flies to be shooed, a sip of beer to be taken with half-closed eyes, and since the ceiling fans grated with such regularity, it would have been a simple matter for him to fall asleep, exhausted from two weeks of Caribbean sun and the silences accumulating on both sides. But before Broschkus dozed off altogether, he made a quick trip to the bar, whose countertop was nothing more than a barrel, sawed down the center lengthwise and splayed open, whose concave halves, he imagined, hid the peso bottles reserved for the locals; a second barrel had been split open in similar manner and mounted on the wall behind the bar, each half-torso fitted with a shelf for the official dollar-a-shot rum. Another? The gap-toothed barman grinned at him, apparently the only white man in the place, already with the bottle in his hand. Another, Broschkus nodded, already holding the dollar bill folded between index and middle fingers, almost as casually as a local.
Then he saw her.
Saw the two friends,
though hadn’t they caught his eye long before, sitting there giggling atop their stools, swapping secrets? Certainly they had, the younger one in particular: So young! he’d recoiled in shock, as pale brown as, who knows, what? Honey? Call it dark honey as far as I care, pretty damn dark—Broschkus had emerged completely from his stupor—and now look away.
Present, quite present she was all the same, the one with the honey-brown skin, with the long black ringlets and the shiny-toothed smile whose brilliance reached all the way back to the farthest corner of the room, the hiding place of the Broschkus couple; and lit up the entire region around the bar itself, where husband Broschkus was just dawdling over his exchange of an empty can for a full one. In order to note, just out of the corner of his eye: that this woman, whom one could no doubt still call a girl, that this girl, whom one could no doubt call, just barely, a woman, was dressed in a shabby pair of bicycle shorts, striped yellow and black just like her bustier, that her sandals were primitive, with soles probably cut from old tires, oh yes, even this detail Broschkus felt sure he had grasped. Nonetheless, the girl was transformed the longer she was gaped at in this stupid, surreptitious fashion—transformed by her laughter alone into, devil take it, into the purest grace, that’s right, Broder, for once the word is fitting, growl-grumbled Broschkus, and now beat it.
No wonder he couldn’t quite make himself remember the second of the two women later, just that she was much larger, above all in girth, not exactly fat, just substantial, downright muscular, alarmingly muscular, and—of this he would be quite certain after this fifth day of January—that she was much darker, as dark brown as . . . perhaps as the cigars the frail old man was rolling with such solemnity? That she was bedecked with blue-and-white and red-and-white necklaces, and where the hair should be had a dyed brownish clump of curls, a mop, whose natural black pigmentation was showing at the roots, and she also wore a rhinestone heart on her belt, didn’t she?
But now, now they were dancing.
Right away the horn players picked up the pace,
the drummers drummed with a bit more abandon, harder, the glistening skin of the two dancers was outdone only by the flashing white of their teeth.
Oh Lord, Broschkus thought, can’t someone do something about—
But no, no one seemed inclined to intervene, least of all Broschkus; the two women were dancing with such matter-of-factness that no one would have dared interrupt them, they were dancing so confidently with movements spawned from the very center of their beings, so complacently, so pleased with themselves down to the tip of each limb, with such undeniable self-love, even the darker woman, even she was glowing, and with her heavy flanks striking decidedly feminine sparks. And then the lighter, younger woman—oh, how dreamily she raised her arms above her head as she revolved around her own axis, watching her, it was difficult to take a sip without spilling. Her honey-hued skin, there was a light shining on it here and there as though the sun were shining indoors for her alone, now it lit up her thighs, now her belly, now her arms, constantly these spots of brightness were swirling around her body, the worst was when they crisscrossed the naked expanse of her shoulders.
As Broschkus set the can down, it seemed to him his eyes had fleetingly met hers, and when, a moment later, it was time to reach for the can again, and, feeling intimidated, he glanced in her direction surreptitiously, he felt a warm breeze pass through the room, felt it slip through the open door, crossing the dance floor to the back room and then out into the courtyard making his tongue strike his palate: Had she just gestured to him with her hand, a scarcely perceptible come-hither? Broschkus focused his attention on the man in the straw hat, the one standing next to him with two different shoes on, and finally the cigar-maker: He was wearing a necklace of little white plastic what—beads? Seeds? And how could the beer can be empty already? Or wasn’t it that little hand gesture again which could not have been meant for anyone but him, him of all people? The lightness and ease with which this—this person—was moving her hips, the directness with which she was openly smiling at him, the boldness of her two hands that kept grasping at her eternally flickering narrow hips, that slid up her body, slowly crossing her waist to meet in the middle, upon her naked belly, but then did not continue their upward journey to her breasts, no, that’s just what they didn’t do! instead they intertwined again only when they had reached her hair, ostensibly putting it in order, sweeping it up to one side so as to raise herself up and, proudly confident, commenting for quite some time on the dancing of the rest of the body with a splaying of the fingers: surely only for him, the stranger seated in the corner who was continuing to gape at her, was he not, continuing to smile at her, was he not, to whom above all others she was continuing to display herself? While she even made so bold as to prance a bit in his direction, playfully, in a moment there’d be a pirouette—
Broschkus choked so violently it made him start coughing.
he’d been waiting for, it didn’t come, instead—the cigar-maker, didn’t he have a white bracelet around his wrist as well?—she came parading through this light, through this noise, walking up to him quite openly, already he could see her protruding pelvic bones, the concave contour of the abdominal wall between them; he barely managed to put down the beer can before she had him by the hand, she pulled him from his stool like a little boy. Her gaze, emanating from the moist depths of coffee grounds shimmered-through with green, with a delicate light-brown, honey-brown rim, don’t keep staring into these eyes, don’t keep staring. As he stumbled off, Broschkus registered that the big girl, the girthy, heavy one, had approached the table as well and grabbed hold of Kristina—so the two were in cahoots—and already all four of them were in the middle of the room. Whereupon the band really started playing, a horse-skull-rattling diabolical spectacle, a few of the locals emerged from their stupors, there was some clapping along, some singing along, even the cigar roller briefly raised his gray-and-white frizzy head with the curve of the ears sticking out. Salsa!
Of course it had to be salsa,
which Broschkus detested. In a perfunctory way, he set his legs in motion, more the representation of a dance than the dance itself, he wanted to focus on the silvery toenails before him, on the brown feet in their cheap sandals, on the ankles, sinews, calf muscles; but the girl, swaying in wondrously soft motions, made him a gift of her long black tresses that snapped back and forth in syncopation with her every move, and when Broschkus dared to raise his eyes all the way, she laughed at him with dark lips, a miniscule black gap between her incisors. When she spun away from him, her hair flew into his face; and when she spun right back toward him, she let herself be spiraled in even closer than before, so close that she—reached for him as if in alarm with her long narrow fingers to avoid crashing into him outright, this, too, part of the same fluid motion, and of course her naked brown hips knew what they were doing when they swished against the hips of Mr. Broder Broschkus in passing and—only then did she glide past him, the girl, he felt her breath in his ear. Wafting about her was not some cloying perfume, as Broschkus noted with flared nostrils, but rather a powerful and unadulterated tang as she went on swaying to the beat as if she were all alone in the world and not located in rather dubious proximity to a slightly padded, slightly graying tourist. Oh how hideous Herr Broschkus found himself, how pale, how ungainly, and nonetheless he saw clearly before him the gentle slope of a pelvic bone, saw the sparkling hollows above and below it, perceived a sudden thickening of sound, it was either the beer in his head or a delicate whirring noise, for the fraction of a second he recognized Kristina beside him, Kristina whose properly suited limbs, under the guidance of the dark, heavier woman, had commenced a merry skipping about. Later he claimed to remember above all the way her neckline in back was sitting askew, this of all things, and in the next fraction of a second—? Was that a bite he’d just felt on his earlobe, a tiny bite? Or perhaps more a kiss?
Or just a coolness brushing past him at downy-hair’s-length, already the girl had pulled her head away—but why?—once more she was transformed into pure rhythm, an intricately accentuated pulsation about the midriff that left Broschkus a dumb and dizzy idiot, one moment the trumpet was thruting him forward, the next he was shoved back again by the brief solo on clay jug, now the bongos sent him lunging after the girl with enormous steps, now the guitar tore him away from her, and when, out of breath, all he could manage was to lurch this way and that, she just gave him a look, the girl, looked at him with such innocence, her cheekbone a slender shimmer, a smile upon her lips, that it had most certainly not been a bite, not a kiss, not even a random touch. She looked at him so hard, this girl, that her nostrils quivered, so nakedly, so directly was she looking at him, so ungirlishly all at once, she was all woman now, looking at him with her girlish, no, womanish eyes, something shone green in them, not as a hot promise but as cold desire that completely knocked Broschkus off the beat. Then he discovered it: the hairline crack in all the gleam, a colorless pale crystal embedded in the green of her iris, a millimeter-wide line traced in the left eye from the outer edge of the iris to the pupil, or rather the right eye, that’s right, the right eye, a fleck.
Any second now! —Broschkus didn’t actually think this, though he was certainly feeling it: Any second now the earth will split open and I’ll tumble down to Hell. How loudly the chorus of singers was calling to him, how mercilessly the brass players clamoring for him, how heavily his breath rattled in his chest! But then the woman, right in the middle of her gaze and the trumpet solo and who-knows-why, seized one of his awkwardly dangling hands, she was now all girlishly demure again, and without a word of explanation, led him to his seat.
Where no one was awaiting him, not even Kristina.
When Broschkus had sunk back onto his stool, finding no beer can he could have reached for, the girl bent over in a parting gesture and—kissed, no: bit him gently on his neck? The instant her teeth buried themselves in his throat, gooseflesh prickled up all over his body, I’m going mad, going on-the-spot here-and-now mad! But while he, blind from this surplus of happiness, dared not lift his eyes, he had already been left on his own again. Left sitting beside a properly coiffed lady who, wondrously, had reappeared at just that moment, before a beer can that was empty but, wondrously, back in its place again.
When one of the men seated near them clapped him on the shoulder, Broschkus did not feel it, but he accepted the proffered cigarette without a word of thanks. And smoked it down to a nub in a single drag, he, the self-proclaimed non-smoker, while laboriously attempting to remember where and what he was, surely he had remained an expert in economics (Ph.D.)? A time-tested department head and specialist for downward speculation and short sales? Or was he just another pasty-faced tourist incredulously fingering his throat with crumbs of tobacco stuck to his lips? The ceiling fan, even now it was swirling a tangy scent in his direction, or at least a breeze, the shirt was clinging to his chest, which was violently rising and falling, a disgrace. How greedily the little flies kept flitting about him!
That at some point he had wound up near the exit,
after an additional Cristal presumably and behind an elegant lady whose neckline dipped down in back occurred to Broschkus only after it was too late. Searchingly he looked around, but could see only the cigar-dark woman who appeared to him, now that she had plopped her necklace-laden weight onto one of the stools, who appeared to him, now that she had poked a pair of sunglasses with blue lenses shaped like butterfly wings into her frizzy mop, who appeared to him downright repulsive, yes, everything about her was too liver-spotted, too broad-nosed, too overstuffed, from her cheekbone to her brow she had a scar, and even when she was not speaking, her mouth thrust forward, a moistly glistening obscenity.
Your friend, where is she? Broschkus looked her in the eye, a wedge-shaped opening appeared in the dark-skinned woman’s face, a bright pink tongue-y laugh mixed with a rough torrent of syllables gurgling up from the depths of a rusted watering can. Outside, on the landing, stood the lady, who now turned around, reproachful—oh, of course, it was Kristina—, the horse-skull-rattler took a step in Broschkus’s direction, probably he was going to try to hit him up at the last possible moment. Where is she? Broschkus glanced over quickly at the cigar maker, but he didn’t even look up, just kept rolling tobacco leaves between his hands. Where? Broschkus looked at the barman, who grinned at him, rubbing his two extended index fingers together, Broschkus looked back outside. Kristina had meanwhile made her way down the stairs, clearing the way for a view of—a girl: So casually she was leaning up there against the railing beside the bouncer, so casually, a silhouette in the harsh light from the street.
Herr Broder Broschkus, at once he was filled again with a delicate whirring noise, anything and everything kept drifting into this gentle buzz; but as he spoke only two words of Spanish, not counting the numbers, he set himself in motion and, treading heavily, advanced towards, and then past, the silhouette. As he was already placing the tip of one shoe on the first step—how cool it suddenly was even outside!—he thought “¡caramba!” and said, no, mumbled, for his tongue remained affixed to the roof of his mouth: “adiós.” Then he fell down the stairs and to his death.
nearly. What had saved him, at least for now, was his wife; when he reached the bottom, ten steps further down, with a twisted ankle presumably and with Kristina, who had been knocked off her feet by the momentum of his stumbling, the sky was white.
“What a . . . conclusion . . . holiday!”
Now she even took him by the hand and dragged him away, into the middle of the street, in full view of all onlookers. What sort of conclusion was she talking about, what holiday?
“Everything . . ., Broder?”
Without awaiting a response, she started walking. But as Dr. Broschkus, the time-tested department head, reluctantly beginning to move, wanted to give a quick sidelong glance up the stairs, he stopped short where he was: Running down towards him two steps at a time was not the bouncer, no-no-no, but the girl, as if he weren’t standing there beside another woman, she came running toward him through this light, this noise, waving some paper money at him. He scarcely had time to twist free of Kristina’s solicitousness before she was standing there before him, trembling down to the flesh of her belly:
Could he please change this for two fives?
The numbers, Broschkus did know them, he understood them at once, there was no need for her to show him her long fingers, five fingers on her left hand, yesyesyes, and five on her right. All the same it was no simple matter to fish the desired bills out of his trouser pockets, it was impossible to look her in the face while doing so, concentrate, Broder, look at the ten peso bill, look at her fingernails, they aren’t silver, they’re white, and try not to breathe for a sec.
When he was finally able to hold out the two fives to her, he breathed all the same—once more inhaling the odor streaming from her body or, at the very least, the world, sank into the green of her gaze such that he had to steady himself by seizing the closest hand in reach, clearly visible was also the matchstick-thin line, the pale fleck in her right eye or rather, not-that-it-even-matters-anymore, her left.
“Hrmph, all this joie-de-vivre around here, this . . . isn’t it all a little . . .”
That had to be Kristina, who was holding him there, now it was time to chime in with a word of agreement, now it was time to just-grit-your-teeth, the joie-de-vivre, it was a little too what?
Listen, Broder, Kristina was pressing him. Didn’t he want to lie down for an hour before their flight “after all this”?
A few moments later, Broschkus was halfway back to the hotel, limping slightly, his right hand on his wife’s shoulder, in his left a crumpled ten-peso note, and his mouth was on fire.
So on fire
that at the next batido stand he didn’t hesitate for long, they had already crossed several alleyways in which there was not even a dog to be seen, and now finally here was something that would unstick his tongue from his palate: banana-juice-milk-and-sugar-water, on ice.
No-thanks, Kristina shook her head, these batidos were packed with indigenous products, she was going to stick with the precautions.
To a Broschkus, all such considerations were of no concern, and a batido the only thing he had developed a taste for over the past weeks. Only after he had emptied two pink plastic cups did he notice, but by then they were already passing the entrance to the cathedral where beggars lie in wait for one with their leg stumps, did he notice that he was now holding in his hand not the ten peso note but an assortment of coins.
And still was holding them
as Kristina already lay beside him on a slack-springed bobbing hotel bed where he was able to wonder in peace and quiet, had to wonder, why the girl had chosen him to hit up for change, when she might have gotten it from the bouncer or in fact from anyone else without the least effort—?
The Caribbean light was seeping in through the slats of the window blinds in long stripes, a constant screeching squealing honking cursing shouting, barely muted, forced its way in and, suddenly, an instant of silence—all the dully incubated misfortune that had been manifesting itself in Broschkus’s life and now, on a smaller scale, on this holiday was now swept away in a single instant, in a flash he was sober again: How could he have been so stupid! How sweetly Kristina lay there beside him with her fussily streaked hair that was in truth utterly unblond, how cluelessly sweet and fragile she looked, how very distant!
Broschkus felt horrifyingly certain he’d just committed a huge error: for possibly on the girl’s ten peso note he would have found everything he had been waiting for, not perhaps for all his life but certainly for the past few years: a name, a phone number, a confession. Even the mattress was beginning to oscillate with the intensity of his comprehension. How strange and white and soft Kristina was, lying there beside him, unapproachably proper even in slumber, it was enough to make a grown man weep.
But this time Broschkus wasn’t even thinking of resigning himself to his displeasure, on the contrary, he would set the error right again. At least this was his firm intention, from out of doors came the din of life, from outside the hotel room life was laughing and coaxing and calling him, already he was out of doors himself, hobbling along filled with determination. And in fact he was able to locate the drink stand without the least trouble.
Ordering himself another cup of batido,
he asked the vendor, a sluggishly shuffling black woman who was supplementing her housekeeping money out of her living room window, asked her with an energetic circular motion of his index finger, to hand over the bundle of ten peso notes she had earned that day, yes-that’s-right, every last one of them, I’m paying in dollars, I’m a collector. When she had at last understood what this madman was after, she certainly had no objection, with great presence of mind she fetched other banknotes from other rooms, shouting for reinforcements all the while, and in the end Broschkus became the owner of all the ten peso notes that she and her neighbors and her neighbors’ neighbors had been able to come up with on such short notice.
Elated, Broschkus betook himself back to his hotel, a sizeable hunk of paper in his hand that felt sticky with sweat and utterly fabulous.
To his wife’s astonishment, he drank
a double whiskey the moment they boarded the airplane.
Broder, what’s gotten into you?
Hm, he didn’t really have the answer to this either, but in fact somehow he knew, and it felt pretty excitingly good—felt good in his chest, leftright, in his loins, leftright, even in his back pocket, here’s to you, sweetheart!
After the meal he had another whiskey, how pleasantly the airplane hummed as he drank, how pleasantly the dimmed-for-the-night lighting shimmered, finally Kristina pulled two plastic pillows out of her hand luggage to blow them up:
Listen, Broder. She found it slightly degoutant how relieved he was that their nice little holiday was over.
As Broschkus was making his way to the toilet, he had to steady himself on the back of nearly every seat. When the brightness flared up upon his shutting the door, he started in horror at the sight of that person in the mirror who kept staring at him, pasty-faced and wrinkled, and then went on shamelessly staring as he fingered his Adam’s apple, beside himself, but then started pulling peso notes out of his pockets with seventeen determined hands, carefully eagerly greedily studying them front and back. Staring as he once, twice gave out a little whistle, then a third one, whereby these whistles merely registered random scribbles on the banknotes, Lord knows nothing out of the ordinary.
Lord knows nothing, did he hear right, nothing out of the ordinary?
Clutching the three ten peso notes in his hand, Broschkus waved them around in front of his mirror image, his evidently clueless mirror image, just look, if you have eyes to see, here they are, ¡caramba! Even more than I was expecting, more than perhaps is necessary.
As his mirror image was clearly a bit slow to comprehend, he was forced to make himself a tad clearer: These notes are options, man, they’re—!
He dabbed at the base of the neck of the guy in the mirror with the corners of his three banknotes: A sort of business transaction, off-market trading, if you will, pretty bloody off, a matter of futures, if you prefer to put it in such terms, that is—what in the world are you grinning about?
“For once in your life follow your gut feeling, JUST ONCE!”
Broschkus flinched almost as dramatically as his mirror image, had that really been him just now, he who always handled his conversation partners with kid gloves, with the dispassionate manner he had worked for years to cultivate? At present, by contrast, everything was creeping away from him, threatening to slip off to the right or the left, why was everything so off-kilter all of a sudden? Why were the banknotes giving off such a stench? All right then:
“For once in your life set your sights high, get it?”
And then in a whisper:
“And above all make sure you act!”
And now uttered only in thought, thought as quietly as could be, as otherwise everything might have started spinning:
It’s about time, too.
How easy it was to make the three banknotes vanish from sight, how easily the notes that remained were dispatched with the aid of the toilet flush lever, no one saw a thing, no one suspected, adiós.
When he had found his seat again, Broder discovered an inflated cushion and next to it a woman already half asleep in her own ruff, oh, that was Kristina:
“Listen, Broder! I haven’t seen you as drunk as this in as long as I can remember.”
Whatever happens, don’t answer. As Broschkus was slipping the plastic pillow around his neck, he attempted to keep smiling straight in front of him—how paltry was everything he had experienced with Kristina! How paltry everything he had experienced without her! Except that, except that, except that which was now quivering in all his muscle fibers and the tips of his hair and his nerve endings and now lay in his wallet in the form of three banknotes, except—Broschkus felt the longing surge up in him so powerfully that his ears buzzed. He didn’t even know the name of the girl, not even one-two-three syllables he might have daydreamed deep into his interior. Kristina? What else did she want from him? Or was it the stewardess who was making some announcement, was that the visibly outraged voice of the stewardess? Who had discovered, regrettably, that it was necessary to request that a bit more respect be shown for the currency of Cuba, it wasn’t so lacking in value that it need be flushed down the toilet, that just plugs up the pipes, thank you. By this point, if not before, Broschkus was smiling, dreaming of a girl who gazed at him with eyes. Dreaming of eyes in which there was a fleck, and when he looked back like that, in his dream, he saw the fleck on her cheek as well, on her upper lip, her neck, the entire body of this girl was dotted with these flecks, a honey-brown body flecked with black, yes: With a smile on his face, Broschkus was dreaming.