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White Sand, Black Stone

The young officer was reading the pages of my passport diligently, scrupulously, as though they were the pages of a gossip magazine or a cheap novel. He held them up. He looked at them against the light. He scratched them hard with the nail of his index finger. It occurred to me that at any moment he might fold over the corner of one of the pages, marking it, as though planning to return to his reading later. You travel a lot, he said suddenly as he went over all the stamps. I didn’t know whether this was a question or an observation and remained silent, watching him sitting there in front of me, on the far side of a black metal desk. He couldn’t have been twenty. His face was beardless, dark brown, gleaming. His green khaki uniform fitted him too tightly. He seemed unbothered by the threads of sweat that ran slowly down his forehead and neck. So you like traveling, he mused without looking at me, in that contemptuous tone of a new soldier. I considered telling him that all our journeys are really one single journey, with multiple stops and layovers. I considered telling him that every journey, any journey, is not linear, and is not circular, and it never ends. I considered telling him that every journey is meaningless. But I didn’t say anything. Through the open door I could make out the noise of motorcycles, trucks, vans, a ranchera sung on a transistor radio, thunder in the distance, the swarms of flies and mosquitos and the men shouting offers to buy and sell Belizean dollars. Revolving in the corner, an old floor fan was just circulating the humid afternoon jungle heat.

It was my first time there, in Melchor de Mencos, the last Guatemalan town before crossing into Belize. I had left the capital early in the morning, and driven to the border only stopping once, at the halfway point, at Lake Izabal, to put in some gasoline and have some lunch—a seafood broth, a handful of dark tortillas with queso fresco and loroco flowers, and plenty of coffee.

Señor, your place of residence? the officer asked me all of a sudden, still looking through the pages of my passport and jotting down my details in a huge accounting ledger. Guatemala City, I lied, although it wasn’t altogether a lie. And the reason for your trip to Belize? I’m going to visit some friends, in Belmopán, I lied, although that wasn’t altogether a lie either: I had been invited to give a reading at the University of Belize, in Belmopán; traveling by land had been my idea, to get to know that route, to get to know Belize’s beautiful white sand beaches, Belize’s idyllic turquoise blue sea—an idea that now, having ascertained the distance and the terribly poor state of the highways, I was starting to question. And your profession, señor? Engineer, I lied, as I always lie, as I always write on immigration forms. It’s far more advisable and prudent, especially at a border of any kind, to be an engineer than a writer.

The officer said nothing, and slowly, with all the lethargy of the tropics, continued to note down my details.

Outside it was cloudy and thick and the sky looked ready to burst. After wiping my forehead with my hand, I started looking at a huge map of Guatemala that was stuck on the wall, just behind the officer, and I remembered how, as a boy, in the seventies, I had won a prize at school for having drawn the best map of the country. My drawing, of course, still included the then province of Belize, the largest one, located in the far north. It wouldn’t be till 1981 that Belize would gain its independence—and till 1992 for it to be recognized by Guatemala—thereby ceasing to be the upper part of this map that I’d learned to draw as a boy. I was never very good at drawing. But that one time, I remember, I really made an effort. And my prize, which I received with some astonishment from the hand of my teacher, was a small green mango. I still can’t see a map of the country without thinking of a green mango. I still can’t see a map of the country without thinking that Guatemala, in a more than figurative sense, had been decapitated.

*

This is no good, señor.

It took me a moment to understand that the officer, without looking up, and barely audible over the wheezing of the fan, was talking to me.

What did you say? I asked. I said this is no good, he said, closing my passport and dropping it onto the metal desk, as if with disgust, as if it were something stiff and rotten. Your passport, señor, expired last month.  I felt a light blow to my gut. That’s not possible, I stammered. The officer, impassive, just kept scribbling something in the old ledger. Was it possible? How long had it been since I’d gotten it? How long since I’d even checked the expiration date? I reached out and picked up the blue booklet from the desk and opened it on the page. It had indeed expired, a month ago. It’s no good, the officer hissed down toward the ruled yellowish pages of the old ledger, and for a moment I thought he meant that what wasn’t any good was me. So what now? I asked. So what now what, señor? without looking at me. Is there no other way I can get into Belize? None, señor. I can’t cross the border with my ID card? He shook his head just once, definite. Belize, he said, is not a part of the Central America agreement. It was true. All the Central American countries had recently signed an accord allowing their citizens free passage across their borders—all of them, of course, except Belize. I sighed, already imagining my drive back to the capital, already calculating all the hours and all the kilometers here and back, crossing almost the entire territory of Guatemala here and back, all in a single day. I opened my leather pouch to put the passport away and was surprised to see the red cover there. It hadn’t occurred to me. In fact, even if it had occurred to me, I usually leave that red one at home, and I wouldn’t have expected to find it there, in the leather pouch I always travel with, and in which I keep other credit cards (just in case), my medical insurance card (just in case), my diving license (just in case), a couple of condoms (just in case). I gave a triumphant smile. Here you go, I said to the officer, and I held it under his gaze, over the same pages of the ledger. What’s this? he spluttered, confused, still suspicious. I am many, I said to him somewhat satirically. But today, I said, I am two.

The officer, perhaps for the first time, raised his eyes, and looked at me slowly, skeptically, as I held a booklet in each hand, a passport in each hand: the Guatemalan one in my right, the Spanish one in my left.

Excuse me, and he stood up. On his green khaki back a dark round patch of sweat was growing.

He walked slowly toward a bigger and more important desk, at which sat a chubby-cheeked gentleman, bald, with a thick ash-colored mustache and reading glasses, and dressed in the same green khaki uniform. His boss, I presumed. The young officer handed him the passports and pointed at me and the two men began to go through my documents, comparing them, judging them, whispering I don’t know what. Suddenly the older officer took off his reading glasses. He looked up and stared at me for a few moments. As though something in me had enraged him. Or alarmed him. Or as though trying to find something in my face, perhaps some detail or expression that would prove my identity. Then he lowered his gaze, handed my passports back to the young officer, and feeling for the reading glasses that were hanging round his neck, returned his attention to the papers on the desk.

Sign here, said the young officer no sooner than he had sat down, pointing at an empty line on the ledger, beside my name. I signed with relish, in a flowery, stylized hand. The officer stamped the ledger way too hard, maybe with the rage of the defeated, and handed me both passports. Next, he shouted toward the line of people who were waiting their turn behind me. I put everything away in the leather pouch, turned away unhurriedly, and without a word, as I was already leaving the immigration office, already hearing the drops of rain on the corrugated tin plates of the roof, I noticed that the mustached officer was watching me seriously over the top of his glasses.

Outside it was raining hard. I quickly dodged the sellers of chewing gum and other sweets, the sellers of sour oranges with pumpkinseed, the sellers of Belizean dollar with wads of dirty bills in their hands and nylon beltpacks tied round their waists, and I started running through the surges of rain to where I had left the car: an old sapphire-colored Saab that a friend used to lend me, for traveling around the country.

As soon as I arrived I opened the door and got in and hurriedly put in the key and started up the engine. I sat still, half soaked in rain, or perhaps half soaked in sweat, just listening to the sudden shower against the bodywork, and to the thunder in the distance of the Petén jungle, and to the unbearable metallic creaking of a dead battery.

*

You’re going to have trouble finding a trucker who’ll help you here.

His accent sounded Salvadorean, or perhaps Nicaraguan. He was wearing crocodile-skin cowboy boots. His button-down shirt was open, and over his heart, in green ink, he had a tattoo of another heart with an arrow through it and circled by a ribbon with somebody’s name. His woman, I presumed. Or one of his women. He had a long machete in a black leather sheath hanging from his belt. And immediately, as I saw him approach and smile at me with his silver teeth, I felt a flash of mistrust and panic and I was about to shut my eyes and tell him please, just the money, let me keep my credit cards and the rest of my papers. But he quickly greeted me and told me that his truck was that one over there, the white one, that he was headed for Mexico, that his name was Roldán. I didn’t want to ask if that was his first or last name. Nor did I want to ask what he was carrying in his truck.

I’d had to stay in the car for nearly an hour, waiting for the rain to subside. From time to time I would open the door a little to air out the heat and my cigarette smoke (the electric window, of course, was not working). But it was raining too heavily and the water would come in at once and so I had to fester in there for an hour, submerged in my own smoke and steam. On several occasions I thought I saw—through the windshield and the sheets of rain—the mustached officer standing at the door to the immigration office, maybe watching the rain, maybe watching me.

No trucker here is going to give you a hand, said Roldán. My compañeros will say they’re in a hurry. He scratched his stomach. But they’re making it up, he said. They’re just a bit cruel.

With a couple of whistles he summoned over a teenaged kid who was walking by. You, help me push, he told the teenager, who reluctantly agreed. You put it in neutral, Roldán shouted to me, and when I say, shift to second and try and start it up. We tried three times. The engine didn’t even respond.

Oh boy, said Roldán, widening his silver smile. That battery won’t go any more, mi rey. The kid, without a word, had made himself scarce.

I got out of the car. I held the pack of Camels out to Roldán and he took a cigarette and we both stood there a moment smoking in silence. The sun had come back out. In the distance a veil of warm mist covered part of the mountain. Have you got jumper cables? he asked me suddenly. I think so, I said, in the trunk. My truck only has a twenty-four volt battery. We’ve got to find a driver with a twelve-volt battery. Maybe we’ll be able to charge it up. He asked for another cigarette. For later, he said, and put it behind his ear. So where are you coming from, then? he asked, and I explained that I’d left the capital that same morning, that I was on my way to Belize, that I wanted to cross over to Belize, that I wanted to get to the white sand beaches of Belize. Not with that battery, mi rey, he said, still smiling. But don’t you worry. We’ll sort it out right away. God willing.

Roldán stopped two truckers, and both of them from their cabs merely shook their heads and went on up the highway. Soon the owner of the truck that was parked next to me arrived. Roldán approached him and explained the situation and the guy said that, yes, he had a twelve-volt battery, but that he couldn't give me a charge. Why not, old man? Roldán asked, and the guy just shook his head, reluctant. But Roldán was so insistent that the driver finally agreed. We connected the two batteries. The trucker started his engine, and we let it run for a few minutes. Nothing. Then we left it running a few minutes more, and I tried again, and again, nothing. The trucker detached the cables, got up into his cab, and, almost offended by me, as though I’d stolen something from him, went on his way.

Roldán took out his cell phone and dialed a number. He asked for a tow truck. Don’t worry, he told me. It’s a friend’s, he said, who can quickly change your battery here in Melchor de Mencos, on the other side of the bridge, and you can continue on your way to Belize.

I felt something in my knees. Maybe impotence. Maybe a devastating aloneness. Maybe the panic of being drawn in, further and further, into a grand spiderweb of swindlers.

Roldán stood smoking beside me until his friend arrived with the tow truck and he negotiated a price with him and warned him to treat me well. I thanked him. I offered him a few bills, which he stubbornly refused. I said, perhaps out of fear at finding myself alone and stranded in the middle of the Petén jungle, that he should let me buy him a beer in town. I've got to be going, too, he said, shaking his head.

I climbed into the passenger seat of the tow truck. It smelled of sweat, of grease, of rancid fish, of burned-out brakes. From the rearview mirror hung a pink plastic crucifix, a laminated postcard of a blonde showing her tits, and two furry dice, one white and the other black. I read the writing on the windshield, along the top in big gold letters: CHRIST IS MY NORTH. Don’t even think about going on to Belize tonight, Roldán said, holding my door. Better to stay in town, have a tasty dinner, get a good night’s sleep, and leave nice and early tomorrow morning, in no rush. I felt that same something in my knees again. We’ll see, I said. I closed the door. Seriously, he shouted over the tow truck’s hefty engine. It can be dangerous being out at night.

*

It didn’t look like a mechanic’s workshop. There was no sign anywhere. The place was nothing more than a small lot with an earthen floor, closed in by three adobe walls, and a big gray metal gate that opened out onto the road. There were tools cast about and piled up all over. Parked in one corner was a Mercedes-Benz from the seventies, possibly white, all rickety and rusty. Next to it, a little boy aged two or three was sitting on the floor, completely naked. He was playing with a handful of pegs and nuts. The guy with the tow truck was also the owner and the only mechanic there. He was called Nicasio. After hooking the battery up to an old machine, he confirmed that it was indeed unusable now. He told me he could get ahold of a new one, a luxury one, imported, at a very good price. He told me I should pay him half up front. He told me I should leave the keys to the car with him. He told me I should give him a few hours, that there was a diner on the corner where I could wait, have something to drink, that he’d come and fetch me there when he’d finished the work. I looked at my watch. It was already five in the afternoon. Then I looked at my friend’s sapphire-colored Saab: open and weary and with its innards exposed. I took my backpack out of the trunk and headed for the gate. The naked boy watched me, spread out in a puddle of mud.

*

I walked to a little park, on a fork in the road. There was no one there. There was no breeze, no shade, no respite. At the entrance, badly painted on a dirty-white archway, a sign bid me welcome to the town. I took the last cigarette out of the pack and sat down to smoke on a bench that was still a bit wet. Almost immediately a young man approached carrying bags full of nuts and an old set of bronze scales. Anything for you, señor? I’ve got peanuts, he said. I’ve got fava beans, cashews, macadamias, salted almonds. I bought a couple of ounces of cashews. After weighing them and taking my money, he sat down beside me. I asked him about the origin of the town’s name, Melchor de Mencos. They say, he said, that it was the name of a general who defeated the British. Centuries back, he said. But who knows if that’s true, he said. He looked up at the highway, as though searching for someone, or as though someone were searching for him. I also looked out toward the highway. I saw a man with dark brown skin, taking small steps forward, as though dancing forward. Then I saw a truck carrying, on its flatbed, a scraggy white cow. Then I saw three kids all on a single bicycle. And you’re just passing through? the young man asked me. Something like that, I said. I finished my cigarette in silence.

*

I walked past a girl who was slobbering red and chasing after a group of chicks. Her white dress looked like it was already stained red. Her loose white stockings looked like they were already stained red. Her headband and her black patent leather slippers had been forgotten behind her, by the open door of an evangelical church through which came the chanting of the parishioners and the preacher. The girl was holding half a pomegranate in her dark hands. Suddenly she brought the half pomegranate to her mouth and took a big bite and started to fire little red pellets at the chicks.

*

I walked past a man leaning up against the trunk of an almond tree. He was sitting on the grass, his legs stretched out. He was, I assumed, taking advantage of the tree’s shade. He was wearing black pants and a white shirt with a black tie. He had a newspaper on his lap. As I came closer, I noticed that he had a green circle on each of his temples. They were two slices of lemon, held there with a shoelace tied around his head. Little drops trickled all down his face, perhaps of lemon juice or sweat or both. Come over here gringo and let me suck it, I thought I heard him whisper behind me, as I hurried away from the almond tree. But when I looked back the man seemed to be fast asleep.

*

I went into a small store, in the town’s bustling main road. An elderly man was leaning on the counter, barely upright, barely holding a nearly empty bottle of Quezalteca Especial aguardiente. Can I help you? said a squat lady from the other side of the grille. I walked over. I greeted her, seeing through the grille that she only sold domestic cigarettes. I asked for a pack of Rubios. The elderly man babbled something. The lady passed the pack to me through the grille, and then I passed her a few bills. The elderly man came over toward me a bit and babbled something again, holding out his hand. He smelled of urine. Don’t bother the gentleman, the lady scolded him. And you just ignore him, she said to me, handing me back a few coins through the grille, which I immediately wanted to give the elderly man. But his old hand couldn’t hold them and the coins fell to the floor. I crouched down to pick them up. When I stood back up, right there, beside me, was the mustached officer from immigration: still serious, still in his green khaki uniform, still with his reading glasses hanging round his neck, but now in the company of a man in cowboy boots and a cowboy hat and with huge shades and a toothpick between his teeth and a black pistol well lodged in his waistband. I wiped my forehead with the sleeve of my shirt. I went off, almost at a run, into the gloom of the main road.

*

An enormous red macaw was perched on a broomstick, at the back of the diner. From time to time it would scratch at its chest with its beak or let out a cry or a sharp screech. Its red plumage looked opaque and sad. On each of the four tables, on a floral plastic tablecloth, there was a bottle with an atomizer. Just in case, the girl said as she seated me. It’s just that it’s a bit crazy, she said, looking at the enormous macaw. Sometimes it just attacks people, she said. But a spray of water will scare it off.

I opened the new pack of Rubios and lit one and immediately started feeling better, getting my breath back. From the kitchen, behind a curtain of beads, I could hear the murmuring of women’s voices, laughter, groans, a merengue on the radio, the clinking of plates and glasses. A couple of white lightbulbs hung from the ceiling. The macaw looked sleepily at me from its perch.

The same girl came out through the curtain of beads carrying a tray, and walked over to me. I noticed that she was barefoot. I noticed that she now had a baby tied to her back (or did she before and I didn’t see it?) with a long blue sash. The baby was sleeping. Here you are, she said, and put on the table an ashtray, a bottle of Gallo beer, a small glass. I thanked her. You’re welcome, she said. You don’t want to eat anything? she asked me almost embarrassed, and I said that not now, but thanks, maybe later. A stray dog wanted to come into the diner but she shooed it away with a clap. Then she just stood where she was, holding the tray flat against her ample breasts, perhaps waiting for something. I asked her why it was called the Fallabón Diner. That’s what they call this neighborhood, she said. Years ago, she said, Fallabón used to be its own village, right here, but now it’s a part of Melchor de Mencos (I learned later that the name of the village, Fallabón, comes from a fire and explosion that had happened near there, in a timber warehouse, in 1950; it’s an Anglicism, from the English words fire and boom). The baby whined and the girl reached back and stroked its cheek with a finger. And is that your car, in Don Nica’s workshop? It is, I said, reluctant to explain to her that it wasn’t really my car but a friend’s. She clicked her tongue as if to say good luck, or as if to say what a shame. I asked her if she could recommend a hotel, that I’d maybe have to spend the night, and she thought a moment and then told me that the La Cabaña Hotel was good, that it was close by, on the main road. There’s even a pool, she said. La Cabaña Hotel, I repeated, so as not to forget, and wiping the sweat from my forehead with a paper napkin I thought I saw something small and dark climbing the back wall. Perhaps a spider. Perhaps a horsefly. Perhaps a scorpion. And is it yours, the macaw? I asked the girl. She smiled. It belongs to this place, she said, but I didn’t understand whether that was the restaurant or the neighborhood or the whole town. Does it have a name? Sure does, she said. It’s called Gómez, she said. The macaw screamed something, perhaps because it had heard its name and wanted to join in the conversation. I stubbed my cigarette out in the ashtray. Is it a male? I asked the girl and she just gave a laugh and shrugged and said probably, nobody really knows. I noticed that the floor tiles under the macaw were covered in white and grey droppings. Excuse me, whispered the girl, and went back into the kitchen.

I poured myself a swig of beer with plenty of foam. The beer was warm but it went down well. I poured myself another swig. I lit a cigarette and took a deep breath. I moved the bottle of water closer, just in case the macaw decided to come down off the broomstick. I opened my backpack and was about to take out a book to read for a bit when I felt the presence of somebody standing behind me.

Bring us two beers, kid, called the immigration officer.

*

They both greeted me, sternly, with just a glance, and positioned themselves at a table in front of me. The girl came out through the curtain of beads. She was carrying a bottle of beer in each hand. The baby was still sleeping, tied to her back. Here you are, Don Francisco, she said. The officer muttered something, perhaps thanking her. He had taken a red handkerchief out of the pocket of his green khaki uniform. He finished wiping the sweat from his neck and his face. Then he took a long sip of beer and wiped his lips and his grayish mustache with the red handkerchief. The other man reached out and grabbed the girl’s forearm hard and pulled her over toward him until she was sitting on his lap. Do you have pork carnitas? he asked her in a lecherous whisper, his long-nailed hand holding her neck, like a hook. His voice sounded too feminine to me. We do, she said, never looking up from the floor. The baby on her back stirred, whined. And do you have cracklings? That too, she said, her voice muted, her gaze still fixed on the floor. Well then, go bring us a portion of carnitas and another of cracklings, he said, and gave her a shove toward the kitchen. She tottered a little. Right away, she said, recovering her balance. The man took off his shades and his cowboy hat and took out the black pistol and put it all down on the table. Still chewing on the toothpick, he raised his right hand as though he were swearing an oath before a judge. And if that fucking bird comes anywhere near me, he said, I swear to God I’ll put a couple of bullets in him.

Both men laughed loudly, almost cackling, perhaps looking at me. The girl slipped away, quickly, head down, the baby swaying on her back.

I wanted to smoke. I noticed the cigarette I was holding in my fingers was shaking slightly. I couldn’t stop looking at that dirty hand in the air, and as I still looked at it I suddenly thought of the heart attack that my Polish grandfather had suffered at the end of the seventies. I was very young at the time, but I can still remember my mother’s uncontrollable weeping when she got the call from the hospital. My grandfather was lucky. It was a minor heart attack. He recovered quickly. But as a result, and following the three instructions he received from his doctor: he quit smoking tobacco, he started drinking a couple of ounces of whisky daily (for his nerves, he used to say), and he got into the habit of walking. He walked a lot, every morning, as exercise. He would leave the house very early and walk around his neighborhood. Sometimes for up to two hours. Sometimes I’d go with him. And during one of those walks, while he was alone at the end of the Avenue of the Americas, right by the statue of Pope John Paul II, a motorcycle with two guys on it stopped beside him. They’d knocked him to the ground, he had said, outraged. They’d given him a blow to the head, he had said, showing us where. They’d wanted to kidnap him, he had said, perhaps now exaggerating what was a simple robbery. They’d taken everything he had, he had said, now indignant, or almost everything, now proud. He’d managed to keep, he had said, the ring with the black stone that he wore on his right little finger. Sometimes he told us he had pleaded with them till they let him keep his ring. Sometimes he told us he had struggled with them to keep his ring. Sometimes he told us he had fought with them to keep his ring. Which version he told depended on the passing of the years, or on his nostalgia, or on his mood, or on the character of the person who was asking him (my grandfather understood, maybe at an intuitive level, that a story grows, changes its skin, does acrobatics on the tightrope of time; he understood that a story is really many stories). He had bought that ring in ’45, he liked to tell us, in New York, the first stop on his journey to Guatemala after being freed from the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. In New York, at a Jewish jeweler’s in Harlem, he had paid forty dollars for it. And he had worn it the rest of his life, for the next sixty years, on his right little finger, by way of mourning for his parents and siblings and friends and all the others exterminated by the Nazis in the ghettos and the concentration camps. A few years back, when my grandfather died, that ring was left to one of my mother’s brothers, who wept when he inherited it and decided to keep it in the safe in his office. It was just any old black stone, in any old gold setting. But one night someone got into that office and managed to open the safe and stole everything that was inside, including my grandfather’s ring with the black stone.

And there before me, on the little finger of that dirty hand that was now holding a tortilla filled with pork and cracklings, I kept on looking at a ring very much like my grandfather’s ring. Or perhaps it was exactly the same as my grandfather’s ring. Perhaps it was exactly the same black stone, and exactly the same setting in gold metal, and it was exactly the same shape and size. Or at least it was all exactly like the ring in my memory, the ring as I recalled it or as I wanted to recall it, on my grandfather’s pale and slightly crooked right little finger. And although I knew it was impossible, even preposterous, even absurd, I couldn’t help imagining that this ring, on this greasy hand, was indeed my grandfather’s ring with the black stone. Not a similar one. Not an exact one. But the same one. The one my grandfather had bought in New York, in Harlem, in ’45. The one he had worn for the rest of his life on his right little finger. The one he had managed to save after convincing or compelling, at the end of the Avenue of the Americas, at the end of the seventies, some muggers or maybe kidnappers. The one that when he died was inherited by one of my mother’s brothers. The one that had been stolen from a safe, one night, by a thief who never knew what he was stealing; by a thief who never knew that in that insignificant and somber black stone one could still see the perfect reflections of my grandfather’s exterminated parents (Samuel and Masha), and the faces of my grandfather’s exterminated sisters (Ula and Rushka), and the face of my grandfather’s exterminated brother (Zalman), and the faces of so many exterminated men and exterminated women and exterminated boys and exterminated girls and exterminated babies who were killed as they slept in the arms of their mothers, as they dreamed in the gas chambers; by a thief who never knew that in that small black stone it was still possible to hear the murmur of all these voices, of so many voices, intoning in chorus the prayer for the dead.

The macaw gave a shriek and stretched out its wings and still on its perch started to beat them energetically, desperately, as if wanting to fly.

“Arena blanca, piedra negra” © 2013 by Eduardo Halfon. By arrangement with the author. English translation © 2013 by Daniel Hahn. From Monastery, to be published by Bellevue Literary Press in 2014. All rights reserved.