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from the October 2014 issue

Amir

This one’s family, Amir would say with a hand on my shoulder, his fingers large and heavy but kind. The other person would look at me, then look at him, then smile slightly before putting out his hand and saying it was a real pleasure to meet any relative of Amir’s. Later, when they knew each other better, Amir would explain to the person that he was actually my stepfather, that’s why we didn’t look alike. But that’s how Amir was, not overly careful when it came to speaking—not out to fool anyone, because he was actually fairly reserved, but hungry for laughter and to make others laugh, even if that laughter emerged from the shadows of discomfort. Amir didn’t grant much importance to words (which are slender and slippery, he’d say), but rather to those strange, invisible waves that bodies radiate, to the gestures that lie beneath friendships, he’d explain with a twinkle in his eye, holding one of the cigarettes we’d share when my mother wasn’t around. But that was already after the rum, the rum and conversation, once Amir was in tune with his surroundings and navigating the smooth space of alcohol.

They met at night, by the lake, my mother and Amir. He’d lost his wife eight years before and his face still held the subtle marks of sleeplessness, of races to the hospital, and a certain proclivity to tears which surprised my mother on that first encounter.         

Both were sitting in the rocking chairs a mutual friend had set up in the little garden in front of her house. Out there, the sound and the warmth and the silence of the party reached them like messages from an indecipherable world. My mother too had lost her husband, and if she visited her friend that weekend, it was only through the sort of sleepwalking she had fallen into since the separation, a state which prompted one or two friends to take her in, helping her down the road of what they called her convalescence.

I can picture my mother wrapped up like that, her small head sticking out from the blankets that cover her body. She breathes deeply and looks out at the water from her rocker. Amir also looks at the lake, trying to make out the lights on the far shore, though it’s hard to say if he’s really watching anything. He could just as well be gazing off at something else—when he loses his sight he finds his memory, as he likes to say after being distracted. Time goes by, and Amir breaks down crying. He cries and cries and my mother waits in her chair, sheltered from the cold by a poncho, those thick, rough ponchos her friend buys in the towns along the lake. Amir cries and my mother is silent and both of them are shaking, but in the darkness they can hardly be seen and it doesn’t really matter.

I’d just moved out of the house when my mother called to invite me for lunch. She wanted me to meet someone, she said, and the vagueness of her words, her reluctance to explain, made me fear that a questionable character had found his way to our inner circle. I didn’t know anything about Amir, nothing of his immense hands nor the involuntary twitch in his left cheekbone, a small tremor which made him drop his gaze and feign concentration on his food. A few references to his family in Algeria, and a couple of facts on the sowing and harvesting of cardamom—that’s all I remember from the conversation. But I also know he managed to carry the weight of the table, a round, wooden table which had been in the house for more than twenty years, one with stains and scars unknown to Amir, concealed beneath the green tablecloth on which his hand rested, his palm open to hold my mother’s small fingers. I was wary of his reserved air, sizing him up from my seat, but I had to give in to the candor of his silence.

He called a couple of days later to ask if I wanted to have a drink with him. The Hotel Lux still had a dark wooden bar, long and nicely polished, but Amir was waiting for me at a rickety table in the back. He shook my hand and I could see he was making an effort to tense the muscles in his face. He began in a slow voice, with no particular subject, and mentioned, among other things, his father, the only relative to whom he was still speaking, although their contact was sporadic, even fragile. But we only get one father, he concluded with some sorrow, exhaling as he rested his hands on the table. He wanted to talk to me, he said at last, to see what I thought of him moving in with my mother. For the sake of correctness, he said, that’s why I must ask, he added, and I had to avoid his eyes and hide behind a sip of rum and Coke. My answer was lacking, maybe even unkind, but Amir had the decency to toast to family and the future and we kept on drinking, by then without much purpose but without the need for one either.

I knew little about Amir or the road to ruin he was already traveling. His easy laugh and satisfied expression after our Sunday lunches suggested a calm, leisurely descent into old age. Home life suited him, he told me once, just before leaving on a weekend trip my mother had planned, no doubt so Amir and I could get to know each other better. Amir was beaming the entire ride, holding the steering wheel with a firm grip, his hands strong and ready to solve any problem that might arise. My mother would watch him from her seat and smile, bringing her hand to his, and she’d smile later too, while we waited for supper at a roadside diner and Amir would introduce us to some stranger, a waiter or a customer with whom he’d start chatting, a person with whom it was a pleasure to speak, especially in this town, Amir would say, especially with the family, sitting beside this beautiful woman, on a night like tonight, we wouldn’t call it starry, exactly, but pleasantly illuminated nonetheless, and what do you mean you can’t sit with us to have a drink, nights like this are made for enjoying.

The price of cardamom plummeted the year after our first lunch, and so began the shitstorm, the goddamn Harmattan, as Amir called it. His father, who had plantations in the highlands and was well into his eighties, disappeared during one of his trips to La Corregidora, his cardamom finca. Amir received a call on Tuesday at three in the morning, telling him that his father had been found. He explained to my mother, phone still in hand, that his father had just been taken down from the branch of a ceiba tree, where he’d been hanging for more than twelve hours.

We went together to the funeral. Amir had already made the arrangements. He had been there for the body’s ablutions, the shrouding of the corpse, even if in this case, he told us, under these circumstances, it wasn’t really appropriate. He held my mother’s hand, composed, while we listened to the chants in the cemetery. I guess he was already beginning to have other concerns, new worries caused by the letter found at the foot of the ceiba and the strange and somewhat incoherent words his father had written there.

I began to stop by the house more frequently. Amir would come back from work before my mother and we’d sit in the two plastic chairs they kept in the garden. He’d prepare the drinks, using tongs to fish ice cubes out of a red bucket and drop them into the glasses. The first fragments of the letter began to filter through that way, though I soon understood that his words were part of a correspondence covering much more than those six handwritten pages. Some of the references were over my head, we both knew it, and Amir saved us the discomfort of having to explain himself. He just talked, mentioning details between sips, or after exhaling cigarette smoke, touching his fingertips to his cheekbones to make sure everything was still in order.

There was trouble rising on several fronts, he said. He spoke of hazy, sometimes dark characters, contacts in rural areas, people who moved in and out of his story without a clear purpose, and he also spoke about La Corregidora, first seized by the bank and then taken over by the workers. Kind of a nasty move by the boys, he mumbled, hurt. He had liquidated his father’s assets. His salary from the export house grew thinner each month, a trickle beside the flow of debts he’d inherited. His partner in the company had agreed to lend him some money which, naturally, had cooled their friendship. He had to make payments to the bank, to the workers, to his partner, and a certain fatigue began to show in his movements, his once calm hands now looked defeated.

He suggested we start having drinks outside the house. He’d call me after the workday to meet in a bar in the city center. His job with the export house kept him out in the country, which allowed him to attend to his father’s lands. I was concerned to see him prolonging those evenings, extending our silences until there weren’t enough customers to hide behind. My mother would be at home, awaiting Amir’s return, and we’d be there, awaiting the return of god knows what.

He held his glass between both hands, making it turn on the table with those big, heavy, friendly fingers. The men had money, he told me on one of those occasions. You have to take that into account, he said, that they have money, because there’s not much of that going around these days, but those guys certainly have it. They’d come to La Corregidora to visit him, just as he was arriving, and it was obvious they were well-informed, because he never told anybody when he was going to be at the finca. Otherwise, the workers would block his way at the entrance, the entrance to his own father’s finca, he sighed, even if he was going there just to talk with them, even if his only purpose was to negotiate something to get them all out of this whole mess. Anyway, he said, the men came to visit and they were very kind, very polite, real gentlemen, they treated me with respect. Don Amir, they said, you’re wasting this land, you’re bleeding out this very second. Just look at your harvest, those wilted cardamom plants, why don’t you let us give you a hand before things take a turn for the worse, Don Amir, just look at the boys, or even worse, look at the bank, no one’s going to help you there. We’re right here, Don Amir, we’ll gladly take this load off your shoulders, these problems with the bank, with the boys, can always be sorted out.

I saw my mother some afternoons for coffee at the house, but we tried to avoid the subject. She knew that Amir and I met every so often, and seemed to regard those evenings with a distant, benign curiosity. I bumped into him one day, as he was leaving the house. He stopped when he saw me looking at a strange new object on the wall. He came closer, we exchanged a few words, and then looked at the object together, in silence. Hamsa, he said at last, the hand of Fatima. It was a flat hand, made of tin or aluminum, its fingers pointing to the floor. In its palm was an eye, the pupil seemingly of emerald. For the evil eye, Amir explained. He raised his finger slowly and drew a circle around the hand. That’s what they say in Algeria: this protects us from the evil eye. Then he said good-bye, glancing at the hand on the wall before leaving.

She liked that we were spending time together, my mother said that afternoon, especially now that Amir seemed to walk with drooping shoulders, closer to the ground. Of course, she was much better informed than I, more aware of his gestures and his silences, knowing, too, details from the letter which I didn’t. That’s what Amir had told me, that there were things in the letter which couldn’t be explained, or couldn’t be spoken of, except to my mother, of course, from whom nothing should be hidden.

She sensed the abyss Amir was beginning to skirt, the harm caused by each trip to the bank, each return from the finca. Things weren’t getting better. She told me, over coffee at home, that his partner had sued him for failing to repay the loan. A lawsuit, she said, is only for enemies. Amir was beaten down, she continued. He couldn’t understand how a loan made in friendship could lead to such a thing. At least, she said, looking at the bottom of her cup, in moments like these, the wolves lose their sheepskins.

***

We’re here to celebrate, Amir said when he saw me. The bar at Hotel Lux was empty at that hour of the afternoon, but Amir already had a bottle of rum on the table, unusual for him since he always drank by the glass, ordering them one by one, gesturing toward the bar so that the waiter would come to the table and share a word or two—Amir hadn’t lost his taste for small talk, though now it was limited to polite formalities. But tonight he had the bottle on the table, two glasses and a small metal bucket filled with ice, and slices of lime he squeezed over my drink before pointing to a chair and asking me to take a seat, because this time there was reason to celebrate. His face shone a bit and his cheekbone was twitching powerfully, as if he’d given the tremor free reign. Things changed today, he said, raising his glass to toast me. We reached an agreement with the gentlemen, he said, I’ve accepted their offer, and now it’s just a matter of drawing up the paperwork, and meeting with the lawyer and the notary. But they’ll arrange all that, the lawyer and the notary. You just worry about the deed, Don Amir, they said, so I only have to bring the deed, and something to sign with. He took a long drink. Sign, of course, and turn over the finca.

We drank late into the night. Amir’s initial talkativeness subsided with each drink, his words fading between the alcohol and the sound of the few people at the bar. Silence soon arrived, reliably as ever, taking a seat at our table with no one there to make it leave. Amir began playing with a slice of lime, lifting it between two fingers and observing it closely, then crushing it against the table’s wooden surface. He annihilated half a lime this way. Then he lifted the last slice and held it up against the light from the bar.

Not one ounce of finquero in them, he said. These men, they’re not one bit finqueros, apart from their mustaches. He gave a hint of a smile, bitterly, which was rare for him, and brought the slice of lime to his lips. But what can you do, he said, if the bank falls short and the boys just go too far. He sucked the lime, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and looked me in the eye. You understand what I’m saying, right? Tell me, he said, raising his voice, do you understand what I’m saying? One of the waiters turned to look in our direction. I wanted to answer, even if deep down I didn’t want to understand at all—all I knew was that the rum and the silence were making it difficult. There’s always the family, I mumbled after a while, aware of the vagueness of my words, and I felt my face reddening, the warmth of the drink now mixed with another warmth rising up my neck. Amir observed me, almost with curiosity, and then he nodded, bringing in his glass to clink with mine. That’s true, he said, there’s always the family.

There were just a few lights on by the time I made it out to the street. He’d stay a while, he said, he wanted to sweat it out a bit longer. He approached the bar, his steps steadier than mine, and let himself drop onto a stool. There were no more customers, but Amir’s loyalty was rewarded in the Lux with the privilege of one last drink at his discretion. We parted with a handshake and after walking out to the street I had to lean up against a wall. I let the concrete bear the weight of my body for a while, and then I stumbled back to the pension where I lived.

I woke up in bad shape the next day, only leaving my place to buy something to eat. I spent most of the weekend in bed, and by late Sunday I knew I wouldn’t be talking to Amir that next week, to him or my mother, that it would be better to give them some space, and something about that understanding made me dress warmer those days, eat well, prepare myself for things I could sense despite knowing nothing about them. The call came on Monday.

This is Amir, said the voice on the phone. He coughed a couple of times and I said hello. Your mother is a bit indisposed, he said, she had a little scare, nothing serious, but you know how these things are. He paused a moment, as if waiting for a confirmation from me, but I didn’t actually know what kinds of scares he was talking about. I asked him. He ignored me. You should know I didn’t sell the finca, he said. It didn’t seem like the right thing to do, he added, and then he repeated those words, more slowly: the right thing, it didn’t seem right. In any case, he said, some issues have come up, and it would be good if you could stop by the house. It’ll be better to talk at home, he said, better at home than like this.

It was Amir who opened the door. He glanced behind me before shaking my hand and inviting me in. Then he took me to the living room and we waited there. She’s coming now, was all he said, and shortly after my mother stepped out of her room and came close to hug me. She sat next to Amir on the couch, and looked out the large window on the other side of the living room. The dark silhouettes of the plants moved back and forth in the garden. It’s better if you explain, she said to Amir. She held his hand and her own seemed to disappear in his large, kind fingers. From my rocking chair, my mother looked fragile but at peace.

What can I say, said Amir, only that the men were upset. You know these are tricky people, he said, turning to my mother, nothing new about that. I told you before, he went on, now looking at me, that they were true gentlemen when they spoke to me at the finca, always very well-mannered. But with such good manners, they expect something in return. I looked over Amir’s shoulder, where the hand of Fatima hung on the wall. Or that’s how they see it, he added, otherwise the call would’ve been different.

They were very rude, my mother said. Her tone threw me, because she sounded hurt, as if a close friend had insulted her. They treated her badly, Amir said. They asked for me, and she asked who was calling. I asked what they wanted, my mother interrupted. She moved closer to Amir. Then they insulted me, a bunch of nasty words, and hung up.

The second call was different, she went on in a softer voice. It had been a couple of hours since the first and I answered thinking it was Amir, because he was on his way home from the highlands and said he would call me. The phone rings and I pick it up and someone starts speaking to me immediately, without asking a thing. The voice tells me that first, before anything, I must put my fears aside, because if I’m afraid, my thoughts will be clouded and I won’t understand, and if that happens I’d have good reason to be afraid. But that’s only the worst-case scenario. The voice asks me to listen. I listen. It says there are certain commitments that can’t be forgotten. Because that’s how they want to interpret what happened, the voice says, as a simple oversight, and they wouldn’t want to imagine that the agreement had been broken, because an agreement is, above all, a matter of honor, a pact between gentlemen, an understanding, and what are we left with if we can’t even understand each other. Fear, the voice says. That’s what’s left. Because we’ve been very generous and Amir knows that, the voice adds, and to refuse that generosity, to renege on that agreement, could only lead to one thing. We all know what that is.

That was two days ago, Amir says now. We got those two calls two days ago, but the important thing is to keep calm. Your mom knows I always keep a .22 in the car. We have it in the house now. We have to keep calm, he says, and we have to protect ourselves: only in an emergency would we use the .22. The house must be protected, and that’s why I’m here, better to stay in the city these days, because I won’t allow your mom to be alone like this.

And, well, Amir continues, today I saw the neighbor out front, and he told me that a man was hanging around here, standing on the other side of the street, smoking, leaning against the gate, and he stayed like that for a while, according to the neighbor, smoking and watching the house. He had a very strange habit, the neighbor said, a way of smoking which first caught his eye and then annoyed him, because he’d only take one drag from each cigarette, the guy would light the cigarette and take one drag before flicking it against the sidewalk nonchalantly, as if distancing himself from the used cigarette, and he kept going like that, cigarette after cigarette, taking his time between one and the next, but sticking to his method, watching the house, just one drag from each, until he left.

Amir gets up from the couch and lights a cigarette. I’ll be right back, he says as he walks to the kitchen. He returns with glasses and ice. He places them on the coffee table and raises the bottle, bringing it to the lip of each glass for a generous pour of amber rum, going around the table, a glass for my mother, another for me, a third for him, until he sits down again, cigarette in one hand and drink in the other, and then he says something about the twists and turns and especially the somersaults of life, the somersaults where everything goes to shit, he says, and then he stays very still, the silky smoke of the cigarette rising up between his fingers.

They get up when they finish their drinks. We need to rest, my mother says, rest and consider our options, she adds, looking at him. They walk together toward the room, hand in hand, taking small steps, but there’s something in the way they move, a shared balance, which reconciles my mother’s small figure with Amir’s prodigious one. Before entering her room, my mother turns and tells me that it’s late, it’s dangerous to be out on the streets, that it’d be better if I stayed over. I say good night and serve myself another drink before moving to the couch. The burn of the rum, and the soft pillow against my back, give me a pleasant sense of well-being. I must be on my third drink when I fall asleep.

A rough fabric, something like a coffee sack, surrounds my body and my head, and I wake up panicked, with the sharp sensation of being suffocated. But it’s Amir that’s covering me, with one of the ponchos from the towns by the lake. I keep my eyes closed, trapped between sweat and surprise. I can feel the rum in his breath as he pulls the poncho over me, taking care to cover my feet. Wood creaks and I half-open my eyes to see that Amir has taken a seat in the rocking chair, drink in hand.

When I wake again it’s cold and the first thing I see is the poncho on the floor. I try to cover myself, pulling the poncho toward the couch, and notice Amir standing on the other side of the living room. He’s leaning with his face against the glass of the large window, holding the curtain slightly open. He glances at me and brings his index finger to his lips. A huge white robe covers his body. He brings his head back to the glass, and it takes me a second to realize that the thing in his hand is the .22.

The outside light is on and dimly filters through the greenery of the bushes. In the back, the dark silhouettes of the plants sway in the breeze. Amir starts moving away from the window, still looking outside, his back to the wall. His steps are uncertain, and as he walks by the hand of Fatima I hear it fall to the floor. Amir grunts as he kneels down and crawls in search of the hand, until he gets up again and continues to the other side of the window, where the door goes out to the garden.

He opens it with his left hand and takes a tentative step outside. His white robe glows in the darkness. He takes another step forward. I get up on my elbows and see the gun in his hand, held tightly against his waist. He stays still, head tilted forward. He’s inspecting the plants in the back of the garden. He must not be able to see too well, because he stays like that for a few long seconds, with the gun very still, trying to keep his balance. I feel another presence in the room and when I turn around my mother’s there, pale and wrapped in a blanket. Easy, she says. Amir raises the gun at the plants, his hand shaky, and I start to get up, too. Easy, my mother says again. She puts her hand on my shoulder, holding me back. Wait here, she says, wait here. She slowly sits down next to me and we both keep still. Amir moves his head up and down, and we hear a murmur coming from outside. It’s Amir, there’s no doubt about it, but his words, the sounds that might be words, come from somewhere very different. We keep silent, my mother and I, watching the window, the shuddering body, sitting side by side. Amir turns toward us, looking in, tears streaming down his face, and he raises the gun to the sky. Then the shots begin.

“Amir” © 2014 by Rodrigo Fuentes. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2014 by Kate Newman. All rights reserved.

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