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from the January 2015 issue

Saint Lionel

Vanoli’s campy cyberpunk roadtrip follows two low-ranking members of a barrabrava or soccer hooligan gang, which are entirely female in Vanoli’s bleak future some indeterminate number of decades from now. In the intervening decades, the Argentine countryside has been rendered massively toxic while the gritty urban landscape, for the lumpen protagonists, looks eerily contemporary save for a few advances in medical and drug technologies. The girls team up with a rural motorcycle gang to steal the precious cargo they’ve been entrusted to transport: the corpse, reanimated as a cyborg, of history’s greatest soccer star, Lionel Messi. Across these three scenes, the idea of hijacking their cargo dawns on the narrator, a gang is cobbled together for that express purpose, and later, the gang reanimates him, offering the assembled devotees of Saint Lionel a glimpse into his prior forced life at the hands of the shadowy cartel.—Juan Caballero


Lucio sleeps through this part of the trip. I keep looking back at him in the rearview and it seems like he’s not even here, in the car, with two tough chicks like us, sitting a few inches away from a cyborg with icy skin worth hundreds of millions of euros. It’s more like he’s a kid who got bored in math class and might wake up at any minute before the teacher chews him out for dozing, his ears and cheeks blushing for shame, thinking the whole time he’d rather be smoking cigarettes in the bathroom.

Lionel, on the other hand, looks like a saint or a madman, someone with a rare and reversible vein of evil running through his soul. The wrinkles of his face are kind of endearing to me, and so is his faint little mustache overdue to be shaved, and that retro little ponytail. I think back to when he would celebrate his goals with that joy, like some kind of wizard surprised by his own powers. At the same time, he somehow looks like an old and tired Indian chief now, like being resuscitated cost him huge amounts of energy and left him tired. Like he’d rather be sleeping, because to sleep is to forget that body lying back there, that wizard-chief’s body that isn’t even his anymore, not really. That his memory isn’t really his anymore either, that it ends in a gunshot rebounding endlessly off the low, blue sky under the turbines of the São Paolo airport on the day he was assassinated.

*

I turn around in my seat, while Vicky keeps telling me in a low voice about when she was a girl. Turns out she’s still reminiscing about when her parents used to take her to the coast. It was almost half an hour ago that she started, telling me about coming here as a five-year-old, seeing the ocean for the first time with her folks, who helped her jump over the waves and then made her cutlet sandwiches in the sand. She’s going on about sand castles, that after all this we should pick a part of Africa with beaches, figure out what city in Cameroon has the best beaches and go live there. That we should use the Brazilians’ money to open a bar, and organize sand-castle tournaments for the little girls there.

And all this without having smoked a joint since the night before.

Vicky looks at me and laughs. Something in all this makes her happy. She says: “Come on, Toots, call the Brazilian chicks back. If you don’t, I will.”

Once we lie down to sleep Vicky asks me to listen. OK.

I knew there was more to all this.

And then she tells me her plan. She points out that it was her plan, that it wouldn’t even have occurred to Lucio. Turns out Lucio has a cousin, daughter of his mom’s cousin, second cousin, really, that’s this biker chick, and she’s always touring around this area, the entire coast really. They go from San Clemente to Costa Esmeralda, looting plantations and splurging a bit in Las Toninas, in Aguas Verdes or San Bernardo, they sell handicrafts in the summers, they camp in Mar de Ajó, in Mar de Tuyú, or in La Lucila until they get bored, but always around the same spots. They never even made it to Pinamar. After that, they go inland, to Conesa, Las Armas, to Madariaga or General Guido, always along the highways, runnin’ scams on the cops, doin’ doughnuts in the middle of the highway. Vicky told me that when Lucio first mentioned his cousin the night we met him, she didn’t think twice about it, but when she saw this deal with the Brazilians could get rough, she got the idea of making some kind of association with them, a pact, rig it up to give them a cut of the money in exchange for protection. Besides, they don’t give a fuck about football but Brazis comin’ over here and acting like they own the place don’t sit well with them; you know how they are, Vicky says.

I ask her if we have time for this, if the bikers would even say yes, and how much could we even give them if they did, but she confesses that the two of them already talked to them. Lucio called them up before la Torda’s funeral, and it looks like everything’s cool if we can get them five thousand euros. She’s bashful as she tells me all this, like she’s hoping for my approval. I ask her to tell me more. She says as far as she’s concerned, we should follow the plan exactly, with Lionel fully in on it. But we’d need our asses covered, and that’s where the bikers come in.

After all this, it feels to me like one of those games of truco where you go to the bathroom and come back and the cards have already been dealt without you, where your only options are to wait and see which way it pans out or else make a scene right then and there.

So I wait and see.

I tell Vicky it sounds all right by me. When in the fuck were you thinking of telling me all this, I ask her.

Tonight, I swear.

She swears she was afraid of my reaction and I tell her to change the subject—we need to sleep. Neither of us says anything until Vicky says she’s going to check on Lucio and Lionel. She gets up, in a bra. She sleeps in underwear with the blanket up to the top of her head. I take the opportunity to send my mom a text, saying everything’s fine and send Marcos a kiss. And I get to thinking. About what’s waiting for us tomorrow. Two minutes later, Vicky comes back and tells me everything’s fine, Lucio is snoring like a mammoth. I don’t answer.

I’m praying under my breath.

For us.

And for Lucio.

And for Lionel.

And for you guys, too.

Tomorrow’s going to be a hell of a day.

*

Lionel is naked, with his back to us. All across his back is that pipe-shape from that fucking brand, those sons of bitches that exploit entire families and then charge more for one pair of shoes than they pay their workers in a month. A little lower down, at about the level of his sternum, the gearwork shows a little between his ribs. His arms are beautiful, clearly defined, hairless.

But you guys don’t care about his arms. Or the perfection of Lionel’s neck, or his calves built up kicking hard every weekend. What you care about, and what the bikers care about, standing around his prone body on one of the tables in the Club’s tiny smokehouse, is that little white cork just above his beltline, between the two bones that poke out above his ass.

Yina is ready with a metal funnel that just fits the opening, with the YPF logo engraved on it. Vicky is holding a can of gasoline. It’s my job to unscrew it.

From near the entrance, the Club’s representative is watching us. She’s maybe sixty, with short gray hair, sagging jowls, and a reddish hawk nose, with a crooked septum. She’s wearing a black sweatshirt with the Jamaican flag on it. She lets the biker chicks come and go freely. She was a biker herself until forty, or so the gals say. She helps them when she can.

The smell of the cyborg-gasoline gives me a pang of withdrawal which makes my hands sweat. It smells like that resin that roasts when you toss a branch or an overripe pineapple on the grill.

Vicky doesn’t pour in all the gas, holding back a little just in case. We don’t know how long the amount we brought will last, but we assume that it’s not long because it was supposedly just enough to prove to the Brazilians that Lionel was operational.

I screw the lid back on and wait. Almost without noticing, we all back away a little from the body. All of us.

I look at the representative of the Club. She’s leaning against the wall. Arms crossed.

Lionel’s muscles begin to move. First the ones in his back, but then all at once his legs as well. His calves twitch under his pants. Then, all of a sudden, his arms flex up. Twice, and then stop. Then four times more. Eight. Then they relax.

Until he gets up. Or more precisely, he sits up, still on the table. He looks at us. He turns his head and looks at the thirty women surrounding him, all crammed into that cabin reeking of dampness and roasted vegetables. Nothing moves, not even a fly.

Now Lionel paws at his torso. His hands pause at his nipples. He looks at his hands, moves his legs.

And he says: “Where am I?”

No one takes the initiative to answer. Until Vicky asks him, “How do you feel? Are you OK?”

Lionel has a cavernous voice. “Who are you?”

“Vicky.”

I introduce myself. Lionel looks at me as if I were a talking dump truck full of rubble. He asks how much gas we put in him and when we show him the bottle, almost empty, he tells us that with that much he’ll last six or seven hours, if he doesn’t have to run.

“Is this a kidnapping?”

He gets off the table and squats down. He stands up and asks us for a Virtual Reality helmet. He wants to play the videogame about zombie soccer stars, the one where he himself is one of the characters.

The problem is that the chicks from the motorcycle gang aren’t really into videogames. I’d be surprised if there was a VR helmet anywhere in a 50-mile radius of us. I try to explain, in the midst of a silence in which no one dares to even move. Lio starts telling us that where he was kept before, they’re not allowed to listen to music. They’re not allowed to do anything, only a little bit of sex, closely monitored, so that they won’t lose it during the matches. One of the biker chicks, with close-cropped red hair, comes forward to give him a hand and tells him she’ll do all she can to get him a helmet, that she knows a kid at a ranch nearby who might have one.

Lionel asks Vicky for a cigarette. He asks for someone to light it.

Then he sits on the tiled benches lining the table. The cigarette smoke makes him cough. He grabs his head and pulls out his hair.

He screams.

His screams sound like something between a train derailing and the yelps of a dog run over by a tractor.

Vicky pulls Lucio close, and he remains stiff. I get closer to console Lio. Yina gets close too, and the fat girl with glasses does, too. She says, “You’ve got to be strong. You have to think about what you want to do next, handsome.”

I take his hand and tell him, “You have to help us, Lionel.”

His cries turn to moans, almost a low howl. Another of the girls sits across from him and offers to play a round of truco, but Lionel doesn’t answer. Then I start talking: I explain everything to him, I tell him we’re on the lam, that they want to kill us, that we were double-crossed and that they’re double-crossing the Club itself. That we have an opportunity to avenge ourselves on the Brazilians, that they can’t use him like that anymore. Vicky backs me up, and Yina butts in to say that he can decide what to do with his life once he’s out of this bind, and that she will personally take responsibility for making sure that’s how it pans out. Lio looks at us, calmer each time, and says that he’s hungry. Meanwhile, Lucio paces impatiently near the door, looking at the horizon, as if he can feel a storm coming. Someone brings a Tupperware full of hot locro and serves Lionel a plate—he smiles and starts eating with a huge silver spoon that one of the bikers hands him. While he eats, we explain to him the whole Sea World plan. When Lio’s done, he asks for another cigarette. He’s calmer now. Before lighting it, he looks at me and asks if I have a handsaw he can borrow.

Not a handsaw, I tell him. But we have something that can do the job. I’m thinking of Torda’s laser cutter, in the trunk of the car.

I ask Lionel what he needs it for.

Just then, they tell me via text message that they’ve found a VR helmet with the new version of Soccer Zombies.

For the first time, Lionel looks happy.

From Las mellizas del bardo, © by Hernán Vanoli. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2014 by Juan Caballero. All rights reserved. 

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