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from the October 2014 issue

The Ape

I used to think it an exaggeration that Latin American dictators were always depicted as apes in cartoons. Until one day . . .

On the railway track, hundreds of soldiers appeared in their camouflage gear, several armored cars blocked the crossroads, and up in the sky hovered two of those birds.

It was Sunday.

A football match was being played out in the field, there were drunks in the cantinas, and a sweet marimba was playing at a party. All of a sudden, everything felt like a Monday. Those who could ran off into the hills and those who couldn’t shut themselves up in their shacks. Bam, bam, bam . . . heartbeats like a drum. Naturally, for news had spread from elsewhere of villages turned to smoke and dust and now it was our turn.

But nothing happened. Good or bad.

It’s true that now and again signs would appear in the branches of the kapok trees or someone would find “carrier pigeons” (which is what the country people called these clandestine messages) out on the railway lines. But that was all.

After the shock had subsided, the people who had stayed in the village began to emerge and heard the news: the Dictator was coming to visit.

The Dictator was a bit of a joker and had arrived by train like everyone else. He was fat and greasy like a pig and wore a cap, a little star on his shoulder, a load of silly trinkets on his chest, and a .45 at his waist. He had a stiff, macho walk and was surrounded by his defense minister, his highest-ranking officers, and his hit men, all of them wearing dark glasses.

The question was, why had he come?

Nothing was being inaugurated in the village, as there was nothing under construction.

But . . .

“Maybe they’re going to put some sewers in.”

“No. Water first, then sewers. We can’t keep on drinking that chocolatey water that comes out of the wells. And it’s worse in winter.”

“P’raps it’s houses they’re going to build us?”

“No, it’ll be earthworks first.”

“We need a clinic too, though, don’t you think?”

“And they ought to pave the road, so you can get a truck up here and we don’t have to rely on just the train.”

Each person speculated according to his or her needs, but as it happened the Dictator didn’t ask anyone anything and no one dared ask him anything either.

Why was he here?

The Dictator was here looking for Don Juan Bonito.

I was asked this question in person when I’d just arrived at the school— did I know of a man named Juan Handsome? —and I told them I knew about the beautiful papayas that grew in the village, but had never heard of any Juan Bonito, whether handsome or ugly. But I was struck by his name so I asked around.

“Oh, he’s a man.”

“Of course, but why do they call him that?”

“Take a look at his face.”

“And where does he live so I can go and see him?”

“Behind the school.”

I went to look for him, but behind the school there was only an empty shack and no one living there.

One day, at last, I saw someone. And I saw his face.

It was him. It couldn’t be anyone else.

Maistro,” he nodded at me, and went into the shack.

He made quite an impression on all of us, myself included.

“Did you meet him yet?” they asked me.

“Yes.”

“He’s handsome, isn’t he?”

“Yes,” I said, laughing.

“He really looks like his monkey, doesn’t he?”

“Yes.”

But he didn’t, because the monkey was quite sweet.

People used to say it was impossible to have one without the other, that the monkey was the soul of Don Juan, and Don Juan said the same. And he went everywhere with the animal. He led him with a chain around his neck, as if he was his slave.

But no.           

“Don Juan’s the slave,” people said. “Because the little monkey takes on his form and Don Juan has to serve him.”

“Takes on his form? When, where?”

“At night, in the Cathedral.”

“Which Cathedral?”

“There, behind the school.”

That old shack, a cathedral? The one in town, or in the Plaza de Armas in Antigua, they were cathedrals. Or any other church. But . . . that shack? Nonetheless, Cathedral was what it was called, no two ways about it.

Don Juan and his monkey were impressive. During their sessions, Don Juan would put the monkey next to him and tie him up tight so that he couldn’t move and so the animal’s soul could pass into him without difficulty. Some of his customers came because of the scene he and the little creature made.

Although . . .

“I don’t have customers because I don’t charge,” Don Juan said. ‘What they give me are offerings.”

And it was true. Actual money, he would not accept. But he would take a chicken, a turkey, a few pounds of beans, corn, rice, salt, cigarettes, liquor, matches, candles, flowers, bread. A small pig, if he could, or a heifer.

As it was just him and his monkey, some of the offerings were used for their own personal consumption and some he sold to make a little money and buy other things.

One day he asked me:

“Will you have a beer, Maistro?”

It was noon and there was a hellish heat. And it was a Saturday, too.

“Sure thing, Don Juan.”

And he ordered a beer for me, another for himself, and one for the little monkey.

“So you give the little thing beer, Don Juan?”

“Yep. If I have a drink, he has to have a drink, too.”

And the little monkey was indeed having a drink, although he couldn’t really take it; he got drunk very quickly and Don Juan, he laughed and he laughed at his familiar. When the little monkey fell asleep, Don Juan would pick him up as if he were a child and carry him around the corner to the Cathedral. And he wouldn’t let his familiar suffer the discomforts of the following day. He always had a hangover cure ready to give him, whether it was liquor or beer, and an egg soup. Then the two of them would go back to sleep. Sometimes they’d fall asleep on the ground halfway between the nearby town and the village.

They went to whorehouses together, too.

And it was amusing to see the little monkey sit on the lap of one of the girls drinking his drink.

“Long live Don Juan and his monkey,” the girls would say when they saw him come in. Then they would start with the word games.

“Oh my, what a hairy little animal. It looks just like that hairy little animal Vilma keeps between her legs.”

“What are you saying, honey? It’s not even half as hairy as mine.”

And: hahahahaha. And so on.

And Don Juan has drink after drink. And songs on the jukebox. And dances with the girls.

“Who wants to have a dance with him?” he would say, pointing at the monkey.

“I will, if you pay me.”

“All right then, let the monkey dance with the pussy,” he’d say, and pay up.

But as the monkey didn’t know how to dance, the girl would just hold him, picking him up and carrying him with her halfway around the dance floor, her whole body moving.

And hahahahaha.

“Hey, why don’t you take him up to your room?”

“But Don Juan, he’s not a person.”

“I’ll pay you.’”

“Not even if you marry me.”

“Hahahahaha,” Don Juan laughed and said:

“Get me another drink.”

This was the man the Dictator was looking for.

When Don Juan saw the Dictator in the doorway of his house, his heart sank.

Thanks to two or three spot-on predictions, Don Juan’s fame had crossed the village, municipal, and regional borders, climbing mountains, and eventually reached the Palace.

The Dictator had sent for him, but, in spite of being the way he was, Don Juan had his dignity and had refused. When he saw the Dictator now, he thought the man had come to have him shot, but then he realized this wasn’t it. What he had come for, no one knew. Although Don Juan led me to believe, from a couple of things he said, that he had come to find out about a possible coup, something like that. But who knows.

In any case, the funny part wasn’t knowing what he had come for, but seeing him humiliated before Don Juan’s table, he who was so arrogant, and hearing him recite the monkey’s prayer, he who had at his service a whole load of psychologists for sowing terror, and then finally seeing him drink some of the adulterated water Don Juan kept on the altar and offered to everyone who consulted him.

He stayed there like this the whole afternoon and then he left just as he had arrived.

Don Juan, meanwhile, did not grow proud with the Dictator’s visit. He acted just the same, despite the person who had set foot in his house. The truth is that if the Dictator had come then it was because the Dictator danced to his tune.

“And what did he leave you as an offering, Don Juanito?” I asked him.

“Not a damn thing. But come on over, let’s have a drink.”

One month.

Two months.

It seemed as if the Dictator wanted to test, first of all, that Don Juan really was as good as he’d heard, or whether it was just hearsay.

One day a jeep came to the village with some of those men in dark glasses. They went looking for Don Juan and they told him that the Dictator—they called him “Mr. President”—thanked him for his services and had sent him something.

“What is it, Don Juan?”

“Take a look.”

“Whisky.’”

You should have seen how Don Juan licked his lips.

But the whisky was too much for him. Seeing a case of foreign liquor in the house drove him wild. But he tried a little and as it tasted like medicine and not like regular stuff, he chose to sell it instead. Bottles worth a small fortune he would sell at a knock-down price. If a bottle of whisky was worth forty quetzales, he would sell it for twenty, fifteen, ten, or five quetzales in the nearby town. In any case, since a 125ml bottle of Venado or Indita rum cost fifty centavos back then, from one bottle he would get enough for one, two, or even three sessions, especially since he now got loaded pretty quickly, as quickly as his familiar. By the time he was drunk, he would even swap whisky for regular liquor.

And so . . .

“What’s happened?” I asked the next morning.

“Don Juan’s little monkey’s dead.”

They had got home drunk. But during the night, the little monkey’s liver had failed.

The Dictator found out about the death of the monkey from his military envoy, who sent him a telegram. The Dictator sent one back ordering him to tell Don Juan to organize the funeral. Don Juan felt as if he’d died and gone to heaven when he thought of his familiar receiving a decent burial. He stopped drinking right away and placed the little animal in the center of the shack, on the altar table, covered him with a white cloth, put four votive candles around him and a statue of Christ at his head, surrounded him completely with flowers, hired an ensemble of musicians, violinists, the ones who play their instruments like mosquitoes, to play all night beside the body, and invited all the villagers along.

They, of course, refused to attend the mass.

“He’s not a person,” they said.

But a few did come. Some out of curiosity, others for the bread, coffee, and rum, and others because Don Juan was Don Juan.

“We’re very sorry for your loss, Don Juanito.”

“Please accept my condolences, Don Juanito.”

By the time the girls from the bars in the nearby town showed up, Don Juan had stored up so many tears he couldn’t contain himself any longer and his crying grew contagious.

All night long there were sweepstakes, card games, candies, jokes, gossip. In the early hours, a fight broke out between two men who left the wake drunk and attacked each other with machetes. A young girl was raped on a football field. And at three in the morning, like in the highlands, the Salve Regina was sung, and a voice could be heard chanting:

Diooooos
te saaaaalve
Marííííía.

In the morning a jeep appeared with the men in dark glasses and a little casket lined in white silk. A child’s casket.

When I saw it, I thought of the little boy whose wake had been held in the train station a few days earlier and who had been buried wrapped in newspapers.

“He’s sent me cash, too,” Don Juan told me.

“That’s great. That’ll cover all your costs.”

Don Juan saw his chance and asked me for a group of children.

“To carry the body, Maistro.”

I thought the last thing I needed was for him to ask me to give the kids a day off. I told him that unfortunately they only came in to school in the mornings, and as the burial was to take place in the evening, well, what a shame.

He took this to mean that I didn’t want to, and did not insist.

The burial was attended by the Dictator, the prostitutes, a few people from the village, and Don Juan. He and I were neighbors but I played the idiot. Nevertheless, I did come out to watch. First came the girls, carrying the ape on their shoulders, then five or six people from the village, praying and singing, and behind them, the Dictator’s agents and Don Juan.

Naturally, lots of people were fuming. How could it be that an animal was carried like this and buried in the cemetery? The nose most put out of joint belonged to Don Jacinto. Don Jacinto was a rather plucky old man, an old guy who wore spectacles, Catholic to the marrow, but very honorable. He was the local civic authority, the man who walked up and down with the emblematic staff of the municipal mayor. He was, in our village, the deputy mayor.

“I’m sorry, but you can’t do this, Don Juanito. He—may he rest in peace—is not a person and you don’t have permission to bury him in the cemetery.” His voice was soft, yet forceful.

While they weren’t friends, neither were they enemies, and Don Juan almost gave him the benefit of the doubt and ordered everyone to turn back.

“And who might you be?”

“I’m the deputy mayor.”

“Is that so? Well, don’t worry. We have the permission right here.”

“Well, I’d like to see it, then.”

“Here it is,” said one of the Dictator’s agents, and moved his jacket aside, taking a .45 from his waistband and putting it against Don Jacinto’s chest.

“Let’s see who’s the boss now, your little shitty staff, or this.”

Don Jacinto was taken aback.

“Well, with an order like that, what more can I say,” he said, and spun on his heel.

The coffin continued on its way.

And was buried in the cemetery, amid a sparse rain of prayer and chants and a heavy rain of flowers that had been brought up in a jeep. Don Juan laid a cross upon it, a handsome cross of fragrant cedar, also donated by the Dictator. “Here lies he who in life was,” said the words on the wood, just that, with no name because he didn’t have one, and then the date. Don Juan cried, some of the whores cried; the Dictator’s agents did not.

I thought it would all end there. But that very same night, the Novena started up. And for nine days I could hear—albeit softly—in the Cathedral, strings of Hail Marys and Our Fathers, of litanies and chants, and all the drivel used when praying for the deceased. And there will have been bread and coffee or hot chocolate, to be sure. The Dictator was paying.

Don Juan was my neighbor, and a sort of friend, and I had gone to the wake for a bit, partly out of curiosity, partly to amuse myself, but not having attended the burial I was even less likely to go to the Novena. That would be beyond the pale for me. Well, perhaps that’s a bit strong, but I was a science teacher.

He didn’t forget me, though. At dinnertime, when the Novena was over, someone came to the school and said:

“Don Juan says he’s sending you this.”

It was two delicious tamales and a glass of rum, full to the brim.

I lived alone and didn’t really eat well, so the tamales and drink really, to slip into the vernacular, hit the spot. And I didn’t want to go, but all night long I could hear the same mosquito-buzz music and all the merrymaking of the night of the wake.

For those nine days, Don Juan was a solitary, anonymous alcoholic. But when the Novena ended, all hell broke loose. Morning, noon, and night he wheeled up and down all over the place. And he didn’t hear the news, despite owning an old Phillips radio, all beat-up, but which still worked. So for him there was no coup by the ministry of defense against the Dictator who had paid him a visit.

One day, I got a real shock when I saw arriving in the village the same military crew the displaced Dictator had used, stationing themselves right outside the school.

Some two or three weeks earlier, we, the teachers, had taken a stand for the first time in ages and declared a strike. We weren’t well-organized and they had made mincemeat out of us. I wasn’t one of the leaders, but as I had been on strike, I thought they were coming for me that day. Lots of my colleagues had disappeared.

But no. All it would take to capture me would be a couple of police officers, or one and a half, not that whole crew. I calmed down. I went out into the corridor and that’s when I saw someone getting out of a jeep with a little monkey in his arms and heading for the house of Don Juan, of Don Juan Bonito.

“It’s the new president,” he told me. “And he’s brought me a new familiar, look.”

After a while, Don Juan had quit drinking, but had lost all his customers.

“I’m going to set myself up again, Maistro.”

I told him I wished him success.

“Just look at the trust the President has in me: he said that as I’d helped the previous President, now I should help him to prevent any ‘accidents.’”

I thought I hadn’t heard right, that my ears were damaged or dirty. But they were clean and perfect.

And to think I’d thought that cartoonists were exaggerating.

“El simio” © Luis de Lión. By arrangement with the author. Translation ©2014 by Rosalind Harvey. All rights reserved.

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