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from the September 2017 issue

Bubblegum and Baldy

Bubblegum and Baldy, lackeys for two fraternal gang leaders in gritty Medellín, forge a bond over salsa music and try to find themselves.

Baldy’s real name was Arcadio and no one ever knew Bubblegum’s. They were of different ages, races, backgrounds, and temperaments, but they were united by salsa: both were true fanatics and their conversations and even their lives revolved around it. I remember the day the song “Juanito Alimaña” was first played on Latina Stereo, a local salsa station, and it was a revelation: Bubblegum heard the lyrics and went into a trance, like he’d been transported to another dimension. He borrowed a cassette to put in the ancient tape player he kept in the bedroom where he’d lived since moving to the neighborhood at age seventeen. Then he tuned in to 100.9 and recorded everything they played to see if, maybe with luck, he could catch the song that had made such an impression. When the tape ran out on one side, he turned it over and continued recording. He spent all day flipping the tape over and recording on top of what he’d already recorded, until almost ten at night when the song he’d been waiting for finally played and he managed to record it in its entirety. From then on he listened to it every day from early in the morning to well into the night, he played it so many times that in fewer than two days all the neighbors knew it by heart. That was Bubblegum’s life, hanging out on the corner, listening to salsa, smoking marijuana, and dragging away the bodies of those killed on the block and the surrounding area, so that the police wouldn’t intrude on the epicenter of the gang’s turf to take them away. He was already older when I met him, as a kid he always looked the same to me, on the corner listening to salsa, never talking to anyone, because even though he was useful to the bosses for specific tasks, I never saw any of them talk to him, he just showed up to play his part as if it had been decided beforehand that that would be his only job. He got by on what the gangsters gave him for moving the bodies, and even though he was older than all of them, he never got involved in their business in any active way, he just did what he had to do to scrape by. Deep down I think the only thing that interested him in life was salsa, because at all other times he was like a shadow: you knew he was there but he never really stood out. In addition to being extremely quiet, he was very sloppy with his hygiene and appearance, and he regularly wore clothes that other people had thrown away. For this reason no one really wanted to be around him, and he didn’t seem to like being around them either. He would even go so far as to move to the opposite corner whenever the one he usually stood on became too crowded with gangsters. He’d watch them from the other side of the street as he listened to his music. That’s how he ended up making friends with Arcadio, who was the only one who shared Bubblegum’s sole obsession. From a young age, Arcadio had been alone in the world. His mother had left him and his older brother Ramiro in the care of their father to try her luck in Venezuela. They never heard from her again, and his father collected cans some days and he drank a good bit, so the boys pretty much raised themselves. They lived in a wooden shack on the outskirts of the neighborhood that fell down every so often, but they stayed on the block because the Riscos had gone to school with Ramiro, the eldest, and their mother, Doña Teresa, felt sorry for the two boys when she heard their story and she gave them food when she could, treating them like part of the family. That’s how Ramiro—who everyone called Baldy because he shaved his head—became one of the founders of the gang along with the Risco brothers, Reinaldo and Amado. But in one of his first big heists, Reinaldo was caught and in his desperation to get away he stabbed an officer to death. He was arrested for grand theft auto and aggravated murder and sentenced to thirty-five years in Valledupar, where it was practically impossible to visit him. After that, Arcadio was left all alone and out on the street and that’s why he became the Riscos’ favorite, because they felt responsible for the boy, and they gave him the same nickname as his imprisoned brother, in the diminutive form at first, Lil’ Baldy, but as he grew he became just Baldy. Despite the fact that he was accepted and loved by the Risco family and spent a lot of time at their house, he never officially lived with them. He was a street kid, and he’d never gone to school at all because no one had ever enrolled him or encouraged him to go, and he soon found himself wandering up and down the block running errands, washing cars, or scrounging up whatever loose change he could find to survive. It was around that time that he became friends with Bubblegum, because he was the only one who was out on the corner at all hours and because he was always listening to music, which Arcadio thought was pretty great; the songs awoke in him a happiness he’d never felt before, and the lyrics told the stories that he witnessed and experienced every day. In those songs he found the companionship that no one had ever been able to give him in real life, not even his brother, who, though he loved Arcadio a lot, was a cold, distant man who never expressed his feelings. This salsa-centered friendship was the union of two lonely souls who relied on song lyrics to convey what they’d never learned to say in their own words.

Salsa was the soundtrack to life in the neighborhood for a few decades straight, and though we all got into it and listened nonstop, what these two friends shared was true devotion. It all began by chance, when Arcadio heard the song “Melancholy” by the Orquestra Zodiac on the ancient radio that Bubblegum had on at all hours. I’m certain he spent more on batteries than on food. Arcadio asked him who was singing that song, which he thought was really cool, and Bubblegum, at first reluctant, just told him the name of the band and continued about his business. But the insistent boy then asked where the band was from, what the singer’s name was, the name of the song, and whether he had a recording of it. Bubblegum took a good look at the boy and saw that his interest was real so he began to tell him everything he knew about Zodiac and about salsa in general, and he felt something he’d never felt before in his life: he felt important. They had a long and easy conversation about songs and singers that even Bubblegum himself didn’t know he knew so much about, the boy’s interest growing and the man happily sharing the information he’d accumulated over years and years of carrying around his radio. From that moment they became fast friends, and they met up every day to listen to music, to share news and discover new tunes and new singers. Their lives were notably improved by this shared passion for music, and it wasn’t uncommon to see them gathering change to buy batteries or cassettes so they could record songs, or asking for packaging paper in the shops to write down lyrics. Soon they’d compiled an extensive catalog and a knowledge of the genre worthy of scholars. They shared stories they’d overheard, they got tangled in arguments that were impossible for neophytes to follow, like who had the best band, La Broadway or La Típica 73 or Johnny Colón. And that’s how they spent their days. Since Baldy had already started smoking marijuana and Bubblegum was a regular smoker, they spent their afternoons surrounded by music and curls of smoke, happily isolated from the increasingly hard life in the neighborhood, which slipped right under their noses without affecting them in the slightest. Lost in their music and marijuana-filled world, they seemed oblivious to the death that reigned over those lands, insulated as they were from the everyday problems and adversity by the melodies and tropical sounds that made them believe life was possible.

But just like the song says, “everything has its end . . .” and Arcadio, just like the rest of the boys on the block, was summoned by the Riscos to begin paying them back for the generosity they’d shown him in the past. This was in a period of regular killings of police and enemies, and much to his dismay Arcadio had to obey their orders because his commitment to the leaders of the gang hinged on more than just a desire for money and the respect of others. He was bound by gratitude, a sentiment as noble as it is inconvenient because it brings with it a debt that can never be fully repaid; the memory of the debt lingers forever and can only be erased by death. That’s why many men prefer isolation, as was later the case with Bubblegum. So Baldy became increasingly involved in crime and the business dealings on the corner and he had very little time for music, although he still listened to it all the time and wherever he was, no matter what he was doing. But fast-paced rhythms as background noise couldn’t compare to the sweet hours he’d sat with Bubblegum, rapt as they listened to songs and discussed the lyrics, hours where they might hear the same melody thirty times in a row until they’d learned it from start to finish, rewinding the tape with a pen so as not to waste batteries, music-filled hours where nothing else mattered. They could spend entire days speaking hardly at all, only to exclaim in the pause between songs things like, Man that Patato is a wiz with the congas! or Ismael Miranda can sing, the son of a bitch! To which the other would respond, Yeah but there’s no one like Maelo! And then they’d return to the mute state of the devoted listener until the audio was drowned out by some intruder who had come to share the latest gossip on the block. This annoyed them, but they didn’t directly run the intruder off, they made use of a secret and foolproof tactic: they’d start talking about salsa, about singers like Santiago Cerón and composers like Pedro Junco or Catalino “el Tite” Curet Alonso, figures who no one had ever heard of, until the intruders got bored and walked away, saying, What a drag, these fags with their boring songs all day and night, don't they ever get tired of that crap? And the two would once again find themselves alone, happy and content to listen to their music free of interruption. Without meaning to, they’d become an island inside the gang, and they liked it, because they were both lonely people who’d found in their friendship and in salsa the closest thing they’d ever had to a home. Later, they became partners in business as well: Arcadio killed on the Riscos’ orders and Bubblegum dragged the dead bodies away. They’d sing as they headed to work, one to kill and the other to move the body, like two coworkers on their way to any normal job, inseparable because fate had paired them together in the life of crime.

But in a life of crime things always go crooked no matter how straight one tries to stay. Bubblegum, who seemed to have no interest in life other than listening to music, soon became hooked on bazuco, and with his new addiction his few priorities shifted radically. Bazuco is probably the worst of all drugs because it requires constant consumption to avoid periods of depression and anxiety, more frequent in the regular user, creating an unrelenting desire for it at all costs so that the addict has to smoke nonstop. Their life becomes bazuco and they want more by any means possible, no matter what they have to do. And if we add to this that Bubblegum had no money or source of income besides moving dead bodies, we have a person in constant struggle, someone sailing against the wind, consumed by an insurmountable desperation, a need that went beyond all known limits. For him this addiction was particularly invasive, it led him to neglect everything in his life, which was already quite neglected, and it even drove him to abandon what he loved most, salsa, pawning his radio for five cosos, which is what they called hits of bazuco. Faced with his friend’s deep addiction to the drug, Arcadio scolded Bubblegum furiously, calling him useless and asking him how he could’ve possibly pawned his radio. But in the middle of the rant, he gave him a little portable radio with headphones that he’d bought for him. Bubblegum listened wearily to Baldy’s words, which seemed to come from very far away, exhausted, but in reality he was the exhausted one, and the bazuco gave him that feeling of calm so essential to survival, which he could no longer achieve any other way, not even through music. His life became one immense yearning, a constant need for drugs that he could only appease by smoking more, and this led him to begin asking for money from anyone he encountered. At first people would give him loose change, especially the gangsters who considered him one of their own, if inferior. But they soon tired of giving him money, it’s hard to put up with someone who’s constantly needy. They tried to get him back on track by offering him jobs and urging him to do what in the eyes of society was correct, to seek help, to go to the hospital, to exercise a little willpower. But advice is dust carried by the wind before it reaches the ears of an addict, who only wants to silence that internal voice that screams for another hit. Baldy was the only one who put up with Bubblegum and whenever he could he sponsored the man’s addiction in spite of himself: he always gave him a lecture, but he always ended up giving him enough to buy a few cosos. He even went without clothes and food for himself just to preserve the image of his friend, so that he wouldn’t have to see him scrounging for change like a beggar. The need for his preferred vice affected all areas of the body dragger’s life, to the point that he was no longer even able to practice his profession. One morning Crazyface was shot. He was a police informant who’d passed as a friend of the Riscos until they discovered who he was and ordered him killed. So Mario Vaca and John Darío pumped him full of bullets as he left the bakery at the end of the block, and there he lay waiting for Bubblegum to do his job, but Bubblegum never showed. He was in the vacant lot on the other side of the neighborhood making the most of some cosos mixed with brick dust, in the midst of the most colossal high. When he showed up on the block well into the night, everyone was glaring at him, and he didn’t understand why until Amado Risco grabbed him by the neck. Hurling punches and curses, Amado told Bubblegum he was a son-of-a-bitch crackhead, that he’d left them hanging with a body out in the open. The block had filled up with cops, Reinaldo was really fucking pissed off because he’d had to hide, and if Bubblegum missed work again he’d better not come back or Amado would kill him himself, even if he had to do it with his bare hands. Bubblegum, bruised and upset, slumped over on the opposite side of the street, where Arcadio went over to talk to him, What the fuck happened, man? Where were you? You really fucked up, just be thankful that crazy bastard didn’t kill you then and there. Don’t you see this fucking addiction has you so fucked you can’t even do what you have to do? Bubblegum’s response was muffled by tears, I was behind the school smoking, how could I know they were going to kill that son of a bitch today—and that fag, why’d he have to hit me, what is he, my dad, he’s not even the boss, that fag, wait till Reinaldo comes and I tell him. Arcadio interrupted, You know what, man? Better just leave it alone and let’s go get a drink. But Bubblegum insisted, No, no drink, no nothing, I’m not even thirsty, I’m mad and I want to smoke a hit. So they waited until the group of gangsters watching from the other side of the street thinned out and they went to buy some bazuco. Walking back to the corner, Arcadio said to him, Why don’t you put on some music? Where’s the radio I gave you? Bubblegum, smoking, said, Baldy, lil’ buddy, I had to sell it to buy myself something to eat. Furious, Baldy responded, Yeah right, something to eat, you son of a bitch, you smoked it up, faggot, that’s why you didn’t show up. Eat shit, you piece of shit fag, you have no self-respect, you don’t even like music anymore, and he took off angrily, leaving Bubblegum alone, shrouded in the toxic fumes and calmer as a result.

Baldy was livid over the disappearance of the radio he’d given Bubblegum and he stopped going to see him for several days. During this time the addict’s cravings reached such unimaginable depths that he was driven to petty theft. Unfortunately, due to his docile nature and total lack of imagination, he didn’t plan the heist very well, stealing no more than some change from Chela’s store. As she was elderly and considered Bubblegum one of the guys from the block, she let the incident pass without much fuss and she didn’t tell the bosses, only commented in passing to the other gangsters. One night when the younger guys were gathered outside her shop, smoking cigarettes and drinking sodas, she said, Oh, boys, at least you buy your things, not like that junkie Bubblegum. Just this week while I was in the kitchen frying up some food, he reached through the bars and he stole that jar I had full of coins and small bills. Then he took off running to go smoke that stuff he smokes. He thought I didn’t know but I saw him from that mirror I have in the dining room. The boys listened to her without saying a thing, most of all because among them was Arcadio, who shot them a look, daring them to open their mouths. But the rumor took to the wind and once gossip makes it out onto the street it can’t be stopped by anyone, true or not. Arcadio played dumb for about fifteen more minutes, said good-bye, and went straight to find his friend at the other end of the block, but he wasn’t in the usual spot. Arcadio waited until after midnight but Bubblegum never showed up, so he went to his shack to sleep, his head full of worry. The next day, when he got to the corner around noon, it was already too late, the news had spread and Bubblegum was still nowhere to be found. But who was there, surrounded by several big dudes, was Amado, who’d had it out for Bubblegum ever since the incident with the body. When he saw the gang leader, Arcadio felt a chill of foreboding, but he greeted Amado respectfully like always and heard him finish up his sentence with, Wait till he shows his face, the son of a bitch smokes everything down to his fingernails, but even that’s not enough, he has to show up all strung out, looking for someone to fuck over. Amado, whose defining trait was his limitless cruelty that required no motive, took Arcadio aside and without any kind of lead-up, handed down the sentence, Son, that son of a bitch friend of yours is a piece of shit, robbing old lady Chela for a bit of bazuco is as low as it goes, there’s no forgiving shit like that, we have to kill that piece of shit before he gets used to doing shit like that and he sends this neighborhood to shit. Arcadio tried to defend his friend, but Amado—who seemed to be enjoying the situation—stopped him, saying, Look, Lil’ Baldy, I’ve always respected you and everything you’ve done, not only because your brother’s my bro, but because you’ve known how to earn your place. But don’t even think about talking to me about that son of a bitch piece of trash, I don’t want there to be two dead bodies thanks to that piece of shit. So son, wait till that rat shows back up, take him on a fake job, and you kill him good and dead yourself, far from here, by those lots behind the school, I hear the dude spends all day there smoking hits. Arcadio felt the weight of the world come down upon his shoulders. Despite the fact that he already counted several dead by his hand, this was his friend, his brother, his only companion in the world. He went quiet then said, But, Don Amado, why do I have to do it? You know you have a ton of dudes who’d do the job for you and they wouldn’t have . . . Amado cut him off with a hate-filled glare, What’s the matter, fag? You can’t do it or what? I’m sending you to do it because I fucking feel like it and also because there’s no one to drag the bodies away anymore, and if I send someone else they’ll have to kill him here, because he’s not going to go anywhere with anyone, but he’ll go with you, and you can feed your questions to your fucking mother, you’re going to do it and that’s it, and if you don’t want to just say so, I can solve that real easy, son. Arcadio walked away with his head down as he thought how shitty this life was and wondering how he could save Bubblegum. He considered going to the lots to find him and tell him to get lost from the neighborhood, but he knew that if Amado found out he’d warned him, he’d be the one dead. Also, where would he get lost to, Bubblegum didn’t have anyone, he didn’t know how to do anything or want to do anything and telling him to leave the neighborhood would be like sending him out to live on the street, like a real beggar. Knowing that he was going to have to kill Bubblegum no matter how much he hated the idea, he went back to his shack early and in the darkness of his room he cried all night. Nothing in life was fair, nothing was worth it, ever since childhood everything had gone wrong for him. As soon as he cared about someone, he’d lose them, without fail; that seemed to be his curse. At three-thirty in the morning he went to his father’s room and searched around until he found a bottle of ethyl alcohol mixed with water that his old man kept hidden. Then he went to look for a cassette he’d recorded with Bubblegum that had the song “They’re Looking for You” by Hector Lavoe. He stuck it into an old tape player of his father’s that sounded terrible, lit a joint, and sat on his father’s bed to listen to the music, smoke, and drink until the sun came up, rewinding and repeating the song until the tape unwound and the whole recording was ruined. He didn’t want to look for another tape, so he tuned in to Latina Stereo and listened to what was on the radio, but in his mind he kept repeating the lyrics dedicated to the pianist Markolino Dimond: “they’re looking for you . . . I told you . . . that you had to watch out . . . I told you, fumanchu . . .”

When the sun came up, Arcadio went to his room, took out the sawed-off .32 his brother had left to him, showered, and went out to the corner. When he got there, he smoked another joint and decided he wouldn’t wait for Bubblegum to show up, he’d go kill him wherever he could find him, probably in the lot where he’d been staying for a while now. He knew that if he didn’t do it right away, just like that, he’d never be able to do it later, much less if he waited for him to show up and then tricked him into going on a job to kill him like a traitor. He thought he owed his friend that at least, to look him in the eye and tell him why he was killing him. He put out the joint and went to look for Bubblegum. He found him where he thought he would, pitiful to look at, lying on the ground, covered in grime and in the middle of a horrible bazuco high. All the junkies in the neighborhood gathered in that vacant lot to get high and kill time, they ate there—very little and badly—and the trash piled up, the place was a stinking dung heap, the air thick with reeking vapors and wisps of smoke to wade through. Baldy approached Bubblegum, who lay in a corner in a hazy trance, and said, What’s up, bro, how long have you been here? Bubblegum raised his head to respond with a gentle and toothless smile, Baldy, son, I don’t know. What sons of bitches sending you to take me to them so they can kill me. No, my friend, said Arcadio, I didn’t come to take you anywhere. So they sent you to kill me? Bubblegum asked. Yeah, buddy, answered Arcadio, and Bubblegum started crying as he said, Man, I don’t give a shit about dying, I’ll be better off, I’m not doing anything here, my life is pure shit, but what makes me so fucking sad is leaving you alone, you’ve been the best thing in this fucking shit life to me and I won’t ever see you again, I hope I can keep looking out for you from heaven, like in Raphy’s song “The White Cradle.” Arcadio, sobbing, answered, Hope so, brother, I loved you more than anyone in my life, more than my real brother, buddy. Bubblegum sat up and said to him, You know I will, I’m going to being looking out for you forever, my Lil’ Baldy, but we can’t let those sons of bitches win, you’re not going to kill me, I’m going to give myself the bullet myself and that’s it. Don’t even think about it, Arcadio told him. Yes, son, that’s the way it’s going to be, you’ll be my partner one last time, he shook his hand and then the two hugged tearfully, Bubblegum pulled away from the embrace and moved his hand to Baldy’s hip where he pulled out the gun. Without hesitating, he put it in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Arcadio held him after the impact and Arcadio went on hugging him as the life drained out of him, until he was totally dead, and he kept hugging him for a long while still. Then he laid him down, gave him a kiss on his bloody forehead, and left the lot, singing in a low voice.

“I’m an oak, trunk of infernal strength / I stand the lashings of the cruel storm / But I can’t accept that absurd and foolish lie / that there is no feeling that can make a man cry. / Who are we fooling? Let’s abandon those tales / stuck into my heart / I carry the stab of your blade. Why shouldn’t I cry, sirs, if I am hurt.”

Back out on the street, he took a bus downtown and no one in the neighborhood ever heard from him again. He never returned, and to this day no one knows anything about him, or what he did with his life.

© Gilmer Mesa. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Frances Riddle. All rights reserved.

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