For Alberto Fuguet and Edmundo Paz Soldan
Hello darkness, my old friend, I've come to talk with you again ...
Simon and Garfunkel, The Sounds of Silence
That elimination match for the World Cup was tied at one goal each, with the second half about to end and the battle continuing very tight. The Paraguayan eleven was putting the pressure over here on our side, against the national goal, because they needed to score or they would be eliminated for good, while we were just playing to prevent a goal, because it was sufficient for us to leave things as they were. With a tied game we were assured our ticket to France, and for them, it was goodbye and forgotten.
Only in an unusual situation were we going to try to penetrate Paraguay's end of the field, with Pibe Cabriola advancing the ball--he had strict orders from our coach, Doctor Tabare Pereda, to stay outside the main area of contention, waiting for a perfect pass. Then, if the ball came to him, he was to take it forward in an individual effort, alone on the field, and perforate the enemy's goal, a second score, the icing on the cake, that would be his as the first had been mine, because I had put in our only goal of the match, a short but precise shot over the defenders' heads that ended up right in the corner--one of those goals that brings the fans to their feet in the stands, as if their butts had suddenly been burned by hot coals.
So the game continued, the Paraguayans without defenders--all of them playing as forwards, besieging us, and all our attackers converted into defenders, closing the barrier, a wall of feet and legs and bodies and heads, except for Pibe Cabriola, waiting there outside the perimeter of the happenings, as had been decided, like I already said, by Doctor Tabare Pereda, the coach brought in from Uruguay. He decided this strategy during the halftime break and repeated his instructions to us so many times it seemed he thought we were deaf or had just tumbled out of bed--we were to engrave it in our minds, he warned, he didn't want any misunderstandings that could lead to fatal errors, because we were playing for our destiny, our lives and our honor. The fans called him "Doctor" not on account of his being a medical man but because of his sage strategies.
They continued with their single goal and us with ours, and that's the way it was--the total points for the elimination round favored us. Totally aware of the situation was the coach of the Paraguayan squad, a pedantic Yugoslav named Bosko Boros, who, not without purpose, came out to the sideline time and again, dressed as on his wedding day, in a white suit and silvery tie, a flower in his lapel, blue-tinted sun glasses, shoes as shiny as his bald head, to yell encouragement to his troops, desperately wanting them to advance en masse into our goal. But Inti Suarez Ledesma was there alert to reject, with his life if necessary, any shots they managed to get past our barrier.
The Yugoslav was received in the stands as supremely pretentious and worse, because we were playing on our field, the great Mariscal Bartolome Uchugaray Stadium of the capital city, full to the top, and every time he decided to launch himself toward the field in one of his desperate impulses, our fan's whistles broke his eardrums. It was for us, the home team, of course, that the masses of fans howled with enthusiasm, not at all worn out from their wait after standing in lines since midnight, unfurled their banners, jumping like they were possessed by the devil, their faces painted with the national colors, and from that enthusiasm we received energy when it seemed to escape us, sweating pure salt because there was no water left in our bodies, as we splashed in puddles of sweat in the grass.
And with no more than a minute left, when finally it seemed the time would stop being eternal until the final whistle, our goalkeeper Inti Suarez Ledesma deflected a deadly shot with his fists and the ball bounced over the crossbar. The Paraguayans ran to put the ball in the corner because for them time was running out, as were their lives; they kicked the corner and jumping as high as I could, I couldn't get my head on the ball to drive it far away. And then I saw that it fell to the ground at the feet of Pibe Cabriola.
Pibe Cabriola had no business being there, as part of the defense, but that was a surprise that didn't stay very long in my mind. There he was, no matter, and now he only had to clear the ball and send it over the sideline and everything would be over, goodbye my dead flowers; in the time it would take them to get it into play again, the umpire would be whistling the end of the game. But Pibe Cabriola turned awkwardly, or maybe he slipped, and then he kicked and that kick sent the ball fast and with spin in the opposite direction. It curved inwards toward the right post and attracted by a magnetic force, bounced softly into the net and remained there all alone, docile, everything in slow motion it seemed to my eyes, and there was no way to correct it, as, like in a sluggish dream, I saw one of the Paraguayans pull it out of the net and kneel down and kiss it as if it were some blond head. Another grabbed it away from him and ran to the center of the field holding the ball over his head as though he was showering benedictions with it, and now the entire team ran behind the biggest prize, winning the lottery. They caught up to him, knocked him down, and all fell on top as if they were cramming themselves into a can of sardines, everything gone crazy--but only among them, because the stands had become silent, a silence of an abandoned cemetery from which even the crosses have been removed.
They called him Pibe Cabriola for two reasons: Pibe, because during the regular season he played with Boca in Buenos Aires, and Cabriola, because his specialty was chilenas, somersaults he executed in the air, his back to the field, to send the ball infallibly into the goal, truly a human catapult.
He still didn't realize what had happened and came up to me, scraping the grass with rapid steps, covered with dirt to the eyebrows, shirt soaked in sweat, wanting me to explain it to him, and when he saw the answer in my eyes, in his eyes what I saw was terror, a terror without name, when all the others passed by him without lifting their glance to him, as if he had been changed suddenly into an inconvenient ghost, and still worse when Doctor Tabare Pereda, who had a personality as sweet as honey, kept away from him in the tunnel to the dressing rooms, but not in contempt I'm sure, but on account of the great pity he felt for him--pity for one of his two star strikers of the national team. The other one was me.
Anybody can commit an error, you could say to yourself, or say it to Pibe Cabriola in that moment in which he needed a consoling word. But it was an error in front of the entire nation, in front of the President of the Republic and all his cabinet in the presidential box, in front of the packed stands. And there in the stands the stupor had not been broken. The people refused to leave and the murmurs continued, like the rain you hear far away in a black sky, but you still can't see falling. Only the President of the Republic left his box in the midst of the tumult of ministers and aides, surely embarrassed because at the beginning of the match he had taken off his suit jacket and donned a national team shirt. And the stupor remained when, the night already falling, we came out of the dressing rooms in single file to board the bus that would carry us to the NI I Savoy Hotel where we were staying. Behind the riot police barriers you could see the people with their fans' shirts, their flags, still incredulous. The police also kept the newspapermen back, as they launched their shouted questions under the distant gleam of the lamps of the television cameras.
Doctor Tabare Pereda advanced bravely toward the lamps and asked for calm because all the questions were coming at the same time. But he couldn't get out a word. He covered his face with his hands, lowered his head, and cried in silence. That photograph circulated around the country and perhaps the world. The sporting shame of a noble foreigner who cried for our national team, eliminated thanks to a goal made by one of its own stars.
Worst of all was the question from Ruy "The Dandy" Balmaceda, the king of sport broadcasting for Televictoria Channel 7. "And the traitor, what did he do?" he asked, blandishing the microphone as if it were a loaded pistol. For our national fans "The Dandy" Balmaceda is the supreme authority and his word is law. He narrates games as if he were a deputy haranguing the galleries in the sovereign National Congress, and he always wears an alpaca jacket and starched collared shirts with Armani ties that are never the same--if it weren't for the thick headphones covered in leather, nobody would believe he was a sport commentator, but rather a magnate of the national bank.
There was nobody to answer this question because Doctor Tabare Pereda was crying and we were staying far away, jammed up against the side of the bus, like standing in front of a firing squad. That also was a photograph that appeared in the newspapers and magazines; and it was the magazine Media Cancha (2) that put it on their cover with the obscene caption: ACOIONADOS (3). And the person who could best reply, Pibe Cabriola himself, wasn't there; he had been taken out by the big gate of the stands hidden in an ambulance, following the advice of Inspector Santiesteban Valdes, chief of security for the national team. "I don't want any other misfortune, my son, the people are quiet but they could get worked up," he told him. "So you'll leave in the ambulance and sleep in our headquarters with my boys; they'll bring your supper from the hotel. They can read you the menu over the telephone."
It was a very prudent measure to take, because the first ones to get worked up began to be the players of the national team themselves; under their breaths they accused him in bitter words, especially our goalkeeper, Inti Suarez Ledesma, who felt himself to be the most offended. The worst thing was the suspicions among ourselves that Ruy "El Dandy" Balmaceda was going to assume the task of spreading it throughout the country. Traitor. What was Pibe Cabriola doing in the area of defense, if Doctor Tabare Pereda had clearly assigned him a different role? That's what Inti Suarez Ledesma asked me many times by telephone during the following days; yes, tell me, what was he doing?
The next morning the stupor was followed by a harsh sentiment of national disgrace. The flags waved at half-staff in the barracks, in the schools, in the fire stations; there were women dressed in mourning at the bus stops, bank tellers who appeared behind the bars of their windows with black armbands. There were radio stations that played funeral marches on the air.
Pibe Cabriola and I were born in the city of Turimani, at the foot of the mountains. We grew up together in the same neighborhood, Santo Nombre, which extended to Beato Prudencio Larrain Street, a street with a park of acacia trees in the center and a cement walk bordering the Lotoyo River. That street was always one of wealthy people, with their two-story chalets and front lawns, and it marked the limit of Santo Nombre.
But when the general market was installed in Santo Nombre, the noise of the trucks' motors, backing up to unload in the warehouses, the hammer blows in the tire repair shops, the cries of street sellers at midday, the juke boxes of the cantinas at full volume at night, the crude behavior of drunks and the mooing of cattle being beheaded in the slaughterhouse in the early morning, were motives for the owners of the chalets to begin abandoning the area.
Also, we used to go to pools in the Lotoyo to swim, a gang of us boys, and that was an additional source of noise, with all the yelling and carrying on that we did; but now the river has dried up and some of its most desolate stretches have become dumping grounds for garbage. After many of the chalets were demolished, the lots were used to construct a supermarket of the chain Gigante and the shopping mall Metropol; those that survived have been converted into stores, nightclubs, ice cream shops, and boutiques; but there inside, with the mountains in the background, the barrio of Santo Nombre, where we kicked our first balls, is still the same.
We were signed together to contracts with the first division club of Turimani, still adolescents. Later, when we had become famous, him with Boca Juniors of Buenos Aires and me in Colo Colo in Santiago, there was in Turimani a Pibe Cabriola School and a Cabro (4) Aldana Clinic, that's my nickname; there were photographs of the two of us on the doors of the most humble shacks, adorning bowling alleys, pool halls, bars, and even whorehouses of all categories. They loved both of us equally in Turimani, they pampered us. We were first the pride of the locals before becoming the national pride; the two of us flying over the green grass with the snow- topped mountains in the distance under a brilliant blue sky in the Gatorade panorama that rose much larger than the others among the maze of commercial road signs in every highway intersection of the country--energia pura (5)--Pibe Cabriola with his jet black hair flying in the air, mine tied back in a ponytail--Gatorade de corazon con la seleccion (6).
Now I wondered what Pibe Cabriola had decided to do. If he would come with me to Turimani, because after the national team broke up, we had plenty of time to spend with our families; if he would return to Buenos Aires, although there was still a month left before training began; or would he go hide someplace else. But he couldn't stay there stuck in the barracks, like a prisoner; that was crazy. My sound advice was to be that he should travel to Turimani, but close himself up in his folks' house for a good while until the blunder began to be forgotten.
I telephoned him but they didn't want to call him to the phone, so then I caught a taxi and went to look for him. They had him penned up in a dark little shack and two policemen dressed in plainclothes were on guard outside. He was relieved to see me, as if he had been condemned to a life sentence and I was bearing the order to release him. Certainly he was in complete agreement that we should go spend the next weeks in our beloved home and that he would keep himself safely hidden away, although he didn't understand the reason for that precaution.
His feeling of mortal terror had evaporated. It was all just a lot of noise, of hot air, he told me. They should put in the balance all his great feats, his golden headers, his bicycles, his goals made for the national team; all that would be seen to be worth more than a single fuck-up, the only time in his professional career. He spoke with inspiration, as if in front of the microphone of Cabalgata Futbolistica (7), the most important program of Radio Regimiento; all morning he had been waiting for a call for him to explain to the fans what had happened; could it be that the radio station didn't know where to find him?
What he didn't know, because there was no radio receiver in that shack, is that the commentators of Cabalgata Futbolistica had been busy calling him the traitor, in imitation of "El Dandy" Balmaceda. And when the Paraguayan newspapers arrived at the newsstands that afternoon, it sure wasn't going to help that the entire front page of ABC Color of Asuncion carried the giant title in red letters, iGRACIAS PIBE! (8), and which the evening television news programs showed as their first item.
The driver who carried us to the airport, a stubby pimp with an acne-scarred face, stuffed into a Second World War aviator's jacket, glanced sidelong at him in the rearview mirror, with a little evil laugh that didn't ever quite come out, and when we arrived at the airport, he asked me which was my suitcase and he took it out of the trunk, but he didn't move a finger to get Pibe's suitcase.
The hardest thing was when we got to Turimani. Just imagine what that airport would have been like if we had won the elimination match, shit, and now on the other hand, to walk beside a hero of other moments whose bag nobody even wanted to carry, and back of the window of the baggage area there was just the sad faces of his parents trying to feign happiness, his sisters in dark glasses as if they were there to receive a corpse, the innocent nephews running along the corridors, and suddenly his mom digs in her shopping bag and pulls out a poster and pushes it against the glass--the poster showing a photo of Pibe Cabriola and above it she had written in colored pencil (you had to get close to be able to read it) TURIMANI TE QUIERE (9). Turimani loves you, my balls. And my own mom and dad, at the other end of the area, acting like they didn't know what was going on, my mother sweating on account of the others' shame.
When we had picked up our suitcases from the carousel and were passing the automatic door, the airport's loudspeaker system started playing the same funeral march being heard all day on the radio stations: El dolor de la patria (10), which according to the history books had been composed for the funeral of Mariscal Bartolome Uchugaray. And he played the dummy, pretending it had nothing to do with him, his morn applauding in order to challenge the loudspeakers and forcing her daughters and grandchildren to applaud as well.
During those days in Turimani, I used to go visit him at the beginning. But my agent called me from Santiago to recommend I be prudent; it wasn't convenient for my own standing that people continue to see me in that house; it had already been mentioned in La Tercera (11), be careful they don't photograph us together; the owners of Colo Colo were uneasy, and I decided for my own good to follow his advice. Pibe phoned me and I was never at home.
Behind those walls he had all the conveniences: a parabolic antenna, heated swimming pool, and at the back of the property a fruit orchard with the peak of Natividades, the same mountain that appears inside the oval on the label of Hochmeier beer, so close that it seemed to form part of the orchard. He had built that pretty house for his mom and dad, and he even had a carpenter's shop built in the corner of the orchard so his old man could occupy himself building and taking apart furniture with tools that he never possessed during a lifetime of making coffins.
I pretended to have the Asiatic flu in order to justify my staying away. But I called his sisters, who adored him to a degree bordering on delirium, and they informed me of his situation. He appears to be calm, they told me. It seemed that isolation didn't affect him much except for the boredom-logical; he kicked a ball around in the orchard with his nephews, helped out his old man with the electric sander, and in the evenings after supper and into the wee hours moving the dish with its manual control, capturing every kind of television program, slumped in the leather easy chair given him by the factory "Tu Piel," whose owners, the Covarrubia brothers, greatly admired us--one chair for him and another for me.
It was his sisters who gave me the bad news that he had started drinking; they thought it was out of boredom. He drank during the long sessions in front of the television screen, after everybody else had gone to bed; first it was cans of Hochmeier beer--the pile of empty cans saw the morning sun at the foot of the chair--but later it was pisco (12) and Wild Turkey whiskey. And that was worse because he hid the bottles in his room and when they were empty, secretly threw them in the garbage can.
His birthday came and went and I learned from his sisters that they had had a family celebration with cake and candles and everything. He was 22 now, one year younger than me; uncles and aunts and cousins and a few other relatives who couldn't turn down the invitations came to the party. After all, he had been very generous with them, princely loans to remodel their homes, to get them out of debt (even gambling debts), scholarships enabling their children to leave public schools and the boys go to the Colegio de los Hermanos Maristas (13), the girls to the Colegio de las Oblatas del Sagrado Corazon (14).
My birthday was near his. I decided to celebrate mine in the Gun and Roses, a nightclub they had recently opened in Beato Prudencio Larrain Street, the whole place lined with black vinyl with a molded aluminum ceiling, the dance floor made of sheets of transparent acrylic and all of it crisscrossed with laser lighting. On one side there's the Metropol mall with the Multiplex movies and Pizza Hut and McDonalds, so that area is always full of young people who spill over the low wall of the old river walk and the curb of the sidewalk of the park, and many sit down right in the street and the whole crowd stays out there drinking beer and smoking joints until after midnight, with the stereo music from cars and jeeps blasting at full volume.
And back behind, Santo Nombre. The same half darkness, the same stores and warehouses with their rusty corrugated iron roofs, the hardware stores, carpentry and automobile shops, dilapidated Chinese restaurants, the interior areas with rooms housing low class public employees, prostitutes, pimps, truck drivers, street policemen, rope makers who work in the market. The only thing that had disappeared was the slaughterhouse, that had been closed down and since then they bring the meat frozen, in cardboard boxes, to the meat outlets. It was from one of those areas of interior rooms that smell of fried food and latrines, of wet clothes, that Pibe Cabriola and I had emerged one day to find the sunshine of glory.
That night of my birthday I personally invited my intimate gang, one by one, by telephone, so nobody undesirable would be able to break in; I told them to meet me at my folks' house a half hour before we'd leave, the house I had had built in Colinas de Agramonte, and then all of us would go together in caravan, me out in front at the wheel of my convertible Renegade which also carried five of them. Beato Prudencio Larrain Street was already crowded at that hour, and the young people stood up when they recognized it was me, to let me through; with yelps of surprise the girls rushed to kiss me on the mouth as their way of wishing me happy birthday, because it had appeared in the newspapers, and they had serenaded me in the sport programs.
It was 10 o'clock when we entered the Gun and Roses, jammed so full nobody could move one step. And the waitress masquerading as Madonna was leading us to the reserved table in one of the mezzanines when I saw him at the bar, alone on a barstool with his back to the dance floor, long jet black hair loose over his shoulders. He was easy to spot because the groups of people that swirled past him gave him plenty of room, like unbridled waves that congealed in the air, in order not to touch him.
In spite of everything it was my birthday, and I wasn't in the mood that night to conform to prohibitions. I told my bunch to follow Madonna and go sit down, and I went over to him. He must have seen me reflected in the mirror behind the bar because he turned toward me, smiling, with a silly expression on his face, the full glass of whiskey brushing his lips. He slid off the stool and hugged me, starting one of those confused mumbled discourses the way drunks do. He reproached me for having abandoned him, although he said it had been the right thing to do--it wouldn't have been good for me to have been seen with a leper like him, and I protested, you're crazy, you son of a bitch, while he kept his arms wrapped around my neck. I'll never forget they were playing an old Simon and Garfunkel song, The Sounds of Silence.
I raised my voice trying to make myself heard over the music and asked him at least three times if he was alone; at the same time I was looking around to see if someone was with him; but in my explorations what I saw was strange faces that watched from a safe distance, with aggressive caution, glances that set me aside as if I were an obstruction in that empty space that could only be occupied by him, all alone, divested of all company, and finally he told me, with a bitter, drooling smile, that he wasn't with anybody, who would want to go out with him. He had sneaked out, he said, with an idiotic laugh; he had sneaked past the watchful eyes of his folks, he had gone out by the back gate of the orchard; the old folks would be alarmed by this time, trying to figure out how to find him, he said, his sisters out in the streets, looking for him. Because there was also the telephone calls.
Calls? The threatening calls; now they threaten to kill me, the telephone has rung all afternoon today, he shrugged his shoulders. And suddenly he grabbed my ears and I grabbed his, and we looked at each other from real close, the way we used to do on the field when one of us had made a goal. I'll buy you a drink, for your birthday, he said, even though you didn't want to come to my party, and he dropped his head to my shoulder, and I felt his drooling mouth and his tears wetting my T-shirt.
What's all this, I told him, trying to smile at him. Well, that's it, brother, they're going to kill me. For that goal? I asked him, trying to make it seem ancient history. Does it seem to you a small thing? They've been wanting to kill me ever since it happened, and I smiled at him again, bastard that you are, I turned his ears loose and it was like releasing a lifeless head. Bastard that you are, damned queer. Let's have a drink, to your health and to mine. And I asked the barman for two whiskies.
The barman plunked down two glasses on the counter, brought the bottle of Wild Turkey, poured a double in each glass, and bent down to get some ice with the tongs. He went to the cash register, rang up the sale, and tore the bill into pieces and threw them in a wastebasket out of sight under the counter. I supposed he had made a mistake and would print the bill again, and then I told him I would pay for everything, for this round and for all that Pibe Cabriola had drunk earlier, for him to give me the bill, and I handed him my credit card.
He made a little gesture of refusal and turned his eyes to Pibe Cabriola, who, sitting again on the stool, had bent his head over the counter. It's on the house, he told me gravely and not without some degree of pity. All he's drunk tonight, since he came in here, and he indicated Pibe with a gesture of his lips, is on the house. And he disappeared from my sight, flustered now, to wait on other customers.
I'll be back, I said to Pibe Cabriola, who was mumbling words I didn't understand, or now I realize that I really did understand: all I want to drink is free because, don't you see, my brother, they're going to kill me. I'll be back, I'm going over to tell the boys that I'm here with you, I told him; but really I was going to warn them that I had to be gone for a while. I had to get him out of there and take him to his house, turn him over to his parents. When I returned to the bar, he was no longer on the stool. It was hard for me to pass through the crowd, because the people had closed in over the congealed space that had existed earlier around him, as if that opening had never existed, as if Pibe Cabriola drinking there alone had never existed. I wanted to ask the barman, but he was busy at the other end of the bar, and for some reason I sensed that he didn't want to look at me.
When the black vinyl-lined door closed behind me, the noises of Gun and Roses remained trapped inside and I found myself in the sounds of the boisterous street, car speakers thundering in the starless night and the deep echo of percussion instruments like whip lashes above the murmur of scattered conversations, shouts, and laughter; the cigarette smoke like a fog that rose from the dried-up river. I looked for Pibe Cabriola among all those unconcerned faces as far as I could see, but somehow I knew he had not gone down Beato Prudencio Larrain Street but rather the shabby streets of Santo Nombre where we had kicked a rag ball for the first time.
I turned toward the darkness of a little street of warehouses shut up with chains; up above, the silhouette of a water tank on its steel tower, the corrugated metal sheets of the roofs having lost their nails wailed like the beating of wings of old animals, the stores barred up like prison corridors, and the stink of garbage in the overturned cans that dogs dug through, and that emanated from the depths as from a tunnel that split and extended itself into other mean streets that were like other tunnels.
Then I heard steps running away in different directions, and I found him lying on the sidewalk under the dim neon light of a closed pharmacy, and I ran; I wanted to believe he had fallen down drunk, I kneeled down by his side and touched the blood on his face and on his shirt; they had cut off his jet black hair with scissors or a razor, opening gashes and wounds, there was a cut in an ear and a deep gash in his stomach, where blood was pooling and becoming blacker, his eyes glassy and his mouth open in a smile forever innocent.
Managua, January-December, 1999
Translated by Richard V. McGehee
(1.) Pibe is a common Argentinean expression for "boy" or "kid." As mentioned in the story, this nickname of one of the star strikers for the national team comes from his playing for the Buenos Aires football club Boca Juniors (which is not a junior club at all, but one of the most important first division Argentinean professional teams). Cabriola in this case refers to a spectacular over-the-head soccer kick (bicycle kick). El Pibe Cabriola was published in Sergio Ramirez's short story collection, Catalina y Catalina; Madrid: Grupo Santillana de Ediciones, S.A., 2001, and more recently in the collection Juego Perfecto, Guatemala: Piedra Santa, 2008.
(3.) The cowering ones (literally, "the ball-less ones" or "the de-balled bunch")
(4.) billy goat
(5.) pure energy
(6.) Gatorade supports the national team with all its heart
(7.) Soccer Cavalcade
(8.) THANKS, PIBE!
(9.) TURIMANI LOVES YOU
(10.) The pain of the nation
(11.) A sensationalist Chilean newspaper
(12.) Brandy made from white grapes; very popular in Peru and Chile
(13.) School of the Marist Brothers
(14.) School of the Oblate Sisters of the Sacred Heart