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from the January 2011 issue

In Hock

I wake up somewhat tired. Tired somewhat, or of something, if not everything. I go outside, airy as always. I say I’m airy not because I was born under an air sign, I don't believe in all that, but because my first sexual encounter took place outside, up a watchtower on a farm, with the rancher's daughter. And she sure was volatile, a carnal cloud.

How we see things depends on the lens we use, so they say, and memories are the same. They depend on the lens we use when we turn our eyes on the past. Our mind is like air traffic control, watching memories come and go like passengers on a plane.

Being outside brings me back down to earth, because I have to pay attention to the pavement so as not to fall head first down a pothole the size of a crater. I don’t last long standing at the bus stop because the garbage hasn’t been collected for several days and I can’t bear the stench. I cross the road and wait on the opposite corner instead, the bus pulls in anywhere anyhow. I concentrate and try to work out which bus goes to the state police ID department, where at long last I'm going to apply for my passport.

I wait for half an hour but no bus shows up. A taxi passes and sounds its horn. Eduardo appears at the window, his face as pale yellow as the taxi, and tells me to get in. I do as I’m told.

“Where to?” A true taxi driver’s greeting. He offers me a free ride to the police station as it's on the way to his next pickup.

I thank him for his generosity. There’s time for a quick chat during the journey. I’ve not seen him for ages and I tell him so.

“I’ve been past your house several times but never saw the car. I thought you must have packed in the taxi driving, or left for Spain like everyone else. I'm planning on heading there myself, as soon as I get my passport.”

He looks at me like I’m a fugitive on the run, liable to jump out of his car at any moment, and a strange smile spreads across his face. Nothing changes, people still want to get out of the country as soon as they can. No one stays. Hope certainly doesn't, that’s the first thing to get the hell out, like a stowaway on the unadvertised night flight. The radio murmurs in the background, low, with local news. It's of no interest to us as it’s not about football. Nothing’s to be gained from being reminded of current affairs and the state of the nation. We’re stuck living in it, not monitoring it from some radio studio or air traffic control.

I tell Eduardo I’ve been out of work for a long time, but that I earned a little thank you for voting in the election last week and I’m using it to pay for a passport.

“So what the state gave you, you're giving back to the state. How much did you sell your vote for anyway? Leaving town after condemning the rest of us to five more years of the same old government . . . It’s a bloody disgrace!”

Eduardo mocks me some more before launching into a long-winded speech. I can either listen to him or shut myself off, abandon myself to my own internal babbling.

Putting your future in hock with an ad hoc pledge to leave the country.

A pledge, an urge, a longing, a hankering, a yearning, a whim. I play with the words in my head.

In hock, ad hoc, ham hock. Flying pig migration.

I’m not trying to get into the U.S. so it won't be a case of “no way, pig,” but rather a simple “get lost, cabrón.” At least the Spanish can’t complain that Smith is in danger of being replaced by García or Rodríguez, like the gringos do. Both names are already among the most common, according to the last census, with Hispanic Latinos the fastest-growing segment of the population.

A statistical aside is unlikely to amuse Eduardo, so I keep it to myself. That I sold my vote is stuck in his head, marked in indelible ink. The measly sum of guaraníes I earned turns out to be the unmarked price for selling one's soul. Be that as it may, it’s also enough for me to send off for my passport. As I perform these mental calculations, Eduardo starts to speak again:

“I didn’t vote, I’m fed up of seeing lists with different names but the same old faces. Never mind the ink on your finger, the main thing that ends up stained is your conscience.”

“Well at least you're alive and eligible to vote. Plenty of people get resuscitated every five years especially.”

“It probably works out cheaper for them if the dead vote,” he says staring at me in the rear view mirror. “Pallbearers and poll booths, there’s lots in common . . .”

Elections reduced to ashes, a deathly silence reigns. To change the subject I ask him about work. He takes the bait.

“I’m getting used to long hours spent at the stand,” he says shrugging his shoulders, switching from dissidence to acceptance, “but I'm holding on to the morning shift.”

“The week is long and the streets are mean.”

“Meaner than you’d think, Pedro. You must have heard about taxi drivers being killed in Asunción for the change in their pockets.”

“At least you don’t get stuck with the night shift. Driving at night’s too dangerous, what with everything that goes on. Any pickup after midnight is risky.”

“It’s not for nothing they say it’s one small step from pickup to stickup,” he says, then moving back to dissidence, “with our politicians it’s either a stickup at the poll booths or on your tax bill. They'll rob you one way or another.”

“Working at night must be exhausting too. There’s nothing to offset the risk,” I persevere.

“You probably won’t believe it but the strangest thing that happened to me was actually in broad daylight.”

“You’re kidding?” I say, trying to encourage him away from politics.

“It was a few years ago, back when I was starting out as a taxi driver. An old guy standing on the pavement outside the Alborada guesthouse signaled me over. It would have been about seven in the morning. He had two suitcases, which I helped him load into the trunk, and then he got in and told me to take him to the airport. He was dressed in a black suit with a musty smell, although his tie, which seemed a bit garish for a man of his age, was brand new. He looked very serious, or tired. I remember thinking his lack of conversation was probably because he was worried about being late. He looked like he hadn't slept all night and sure enough he fell asleep on the back seat as we went down Avenida España. Even the morning-rush-hour car horns didn't wake him up. We had quite a stretch to travel so I just left him to it. I remember I even found some calm music on the radio, to stop the sound of the traffic giving him a sudden fright. In the end it was me who had the fright. We got to the airport entrance where the dictatorship used to have a police checkpoint, to make sure not just anybody flew out of the country. Those were the days of real repression, siege by state decree, and only the lucky ones were allowed out. The old guy looked like he had a chance, I even remember thinking he might have been foreign, there must have been something about his appearance. Anyway, as we got to the police control gate I told the old guy we’d arrived. I even tapped him on the arm to wake him up. But nothing . . . no reaction, his eyes stayed shut.”

Not wanting to interrupt the story, I make a gesture with my eyebrows, one that can only mean “and then what?”

“The old guy was dead. He'd passed away in transit. Took to the heavens before his plane did. But the worst thing was it turned out he had no plane tickets or passport on him, just a few coins, and even then not enough to pay for the taxi, a bloody scam! Well, this snuffing it trick of his was a real headache for me. I had to take him to the airport police and try to explain to them this mysterious death. The last thing I wanted was trouble with the police so I told them everything that happened and even handed over the suitcases. They searched the vehicle and then went through all the old guy’s things. They found his ID card, some clothes, some books, and some other stuff of no real value. In the inside pocket of his coat they found a jar of pills, that’s what had killed him, sent him to sleep for ever. He’d taken a load of them before leaving the guesthouse.”

“How crazy . . . What had happened to him? Did he have something to hide?”

“I’ve no idea. I guess he just wanted to die on the move rather than stuck in the guesthouse, maybe that way he felt that with his final act he was somehow escaping the country. He was probably sick of having endured the same dictatorship for his entire adult life. After the inquest, they found out he was named Antonio Vázquez and was a former teacher who’d been cheated out of his fellowship when he reached retirement. What a way to abandon the country and leave it all behind!”

Another deathly silence descends. The taxi turns a corner.

I notice we’re almost at the ID office and realize I was totally caught up in the anecdote. Eduardo jokes:

“At least you’re heading for identifications not investigations, as they used to call it. Back then, fingerprints and a photo meant you were off to jail.”

As Eduardo is starting to get heavy again I thank him for taking me so far and get out on the corner of Avenida Boggiani. The line into the police station is so big it fills the entire pavement, and the office hasn’t even opened yet. Demand for passports is evidently high, and it doesn’t look like those waiting, youngsters for the most part, are off on their holidays. The long queue and the idea of a last-minute hurdle make me tense.

“Good luck mate,” says Eduardo, clearly satisfied that by having to deal with such a line, I’m somehow being made to pay more than just a registration fee.

I respond with a simple, “thanks, you too,” and pat him on the back, but he just drives away. After a story like that, all I can do is hope that when my time comes to leave the country, and I ring for a taxi to take me to the airport, it’s not Eduardo who takes the call.

Translation of "Pignorar." Copyright José Pérez Reyes. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2011 by Jethro Soutar. All rights reserved.

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