Luck of the draw spares one young man while simultaneously condemning his friend to a tragic fate in this short story by Juan Gabriel Vásquez.
Ernesto Wolf. In the class list our surnames were neighbors, because after mine there don’t tend to be too many surnames in Colombia (unless it’s a foreign one or some curiosity: Yáñez or Zapata, Yammara or Zúñiga). The day of the lottery that would or would not send us into the army, alphabetical order meant that I would pick before he did. In the burgundy-coloured velvet bag there were only two left, one blue and one red, where a little while before there had been almost fifty, the number of students who were eligible for military service that year. Picking the red ball would send me into the army; the other would send my friend. The system was very simple.
This took place in the Teatro Patria, a building attached to the Cavalry School, where now they show bad movies and where there used to be, once in a while, a comedy, the odd concert, a magic act. A magic act, yes, that’s what the lottery was like. All the boys in the final year of high school acted as the audience along with a few more or less supportive teachers; on stage, three actors: a lieutenant with plasterwork hair (maybe he was a lieutenant, but I’m not sure: I don’t really remember his shoulders or his lapel or his breast pocket, and anyway I’ve never been able to recognize ranks), a uniformed assistant and a volunteer who had gone up, unwillingly, to participate in the magic, to pick out the little ball that could deprive him of civilian life for a year. The assistant, smelling of mothballs, held up the bag of lottery balls. I put in my hand, pulled out the blue ball, and before I had time to think that I had condemned my friend, he had invaded the stage to embrace me and provoke the indignation of the officer and the complicity of the assistant, a wink from her blue-shadowed, generously-mascaraed eyelid.
The soldier, lieutenant, or whatever he was, took out his Kilométrico ballpoint and signed an ivory-colored, watermarked, and embossed paper, folded it in three, and handed it to me as if he were handing me a smelly rag, at the same time biting the plastic pen cap: the white, saliva-covered cap, glistening against a background of yellow teeth. Ernesto and the woman, meanwhile, were talking; he didn’t want to draw his red ball, since it was the last one and the procedure seemed superfluous to him, and there was no possible surprise for the audience, the mass of high school grads who shared the same idea of the entertainment: that the guy next to him would be recruited. But the woman and maybe her makeup convinced him to reach his hand in, to take out the ball—and convinced him of other things, too. The next day, at lunchtime, my telephone rang.
“What a body she had, bro,” Ernesto’s boggy voice said to me. “You couldn’t tell from the uniform.”
We saw each other afterward a couple of times and then seeing each other didn’t depend on us. Unscrupulously anxious, offensively meek, Ernesto Wolf joined the Ayacucho Company of the Tenth Brigade, in Tolemaida, at the end of August that same year. Ayacucho: the cacophony meant nothing to him, except a vague echo from primary school. Ernesto, grandson of a foreigner who was once accused of a lack of patriotism in a major newspaper, son of a father who had grown up not quite sure where he was from, although he had been baptized with a name from the calendar of saints, so as not to be out of place, didn’t know much about Ayacucho in particular or the wars of independence in general. I thought that friendship obliged me to give him a hand with his patriotism. I got up early one Sunday; I took a snapshot of the Monument of Heroes and took it to Tolemaida between the pages of the newspaper.
Two cacophonies and a disguised insult, all carved into the semiprecious stone of national independence: this I handed to Cadet Wolf. It was August, as I said, and the wind was already getting up, and on the patches of grass around the monument people had set up improvised lines and were selling kites, geometric tissue paper with bamboo skeletons that could never withstand the onslaught of a single gust of mountain wind. In Tolemaida, which wasn’t in the mountains but down in the tropical lowlands, there was no wind: in Tolemaida, the air didn’t move, didn’t seem to ever move. Lance Corporal Jaramillo would drape an old boa constrictor over their shoulders, and the length of time they had to carry it depended on the extent of their insubordination; Lance Corporal Jaramillo, as threat or dissuasion, told the company the only urban legend there was in that rural region, the dungeon of Cuatro Bolas, where an immense black man had his way with rebellious recruits in an unholy manner. For a year, Ernesto Wolf told more stories about Lance Corporal Jaramillo than he’d ever told about anyone ever. Lance Corporal Jaramillo was responsible for the immobility of the air, for the fevers, for the blisters the rifles gave them on their hands, during firing range exercises. He was responsible for the tears of the youngest cadets (there were some who were just fifteen, precocious high school graduates) hidden behind the storehouse or in the lavatories, and at night muffled by their pillows. Lance Corporal Jaramillo. I never knew his first name; I never saw him, but I came to hate him. On Sundays, on visits to the Escuela de Lanceros or at the Wolfs’ house in Bogotá, Ernesto sat—on the dry grass, if the visit was in Tolemaida; if it was in Bogotá, at the head of the table—and told stories; facing him, his parents and I ate and looked at each other and together we hated Lance Corporal Jaramillo. But now that I think about it, maybe I’m mistaken: Antonio, his father, was only present if the leave day was a Sunday, and he never set foot inside the Escuela de Lanceros, just as he’d never entered the Teatro Patria.
One of those Sundays, while we were waiting for the bus that brought Ernesto from Tolemaida when he got leave, stuck in a car with the windows rolled up tight (the dust, the noise of Puente Aranda), Antonio Wolf, who was growing fond of me by then, said out of the blue: “But you wouldn’t have wanted.” He said it like that, he said that strange seemingly incomplete phrase, gripping the steering wheel with those hands of an old boxer, of a Bavarian peasant, the hands that would never cease to look like those of a recent arrival, although it hadn’t been him but his father who’d been the immigrant. He said it without looking at me, because inside a car people tend not to look at each other. Like a fire or a cinema screen, a car’s windshield attracts the gaze, traps and dominates it.
“What?” I said.
“To go like that,” he said. “To go and waste time. Ernesto did want to go. And what for? To learn to swear stupid allegiances and shoot a rifle that he’s never going to use again in his life.”
I was eighteen years old then. I didn’t understand the words: I understood that Antonio Wolf, a man I had come to respect, was talking frankly to me and perhaps also respected me. But I hadn’t earned that respect, because it had been chance, not ideas or principles, that had been responsible for me not having to go into that damned place where they learn to swear stupid allegiances and shoot rifles they’d never use again, but where most of all they wasted time, our own time and our parents’ time as well, where life got snagged.
And there the Wolfs’ life got snagged. Sixteen days before finishing his military service, Ernesto died in the middle of some maneuvers I don’t know the name of. A pulley snapped, the rope Ernesto was suspended from fell into the ninety-foot drop between two mountains, Ernesto’s body smashed into the rocks at fifty miles an hour, and everyone agreed that he must already have been dead when he fell to the bottom of the valley, where there’s a little waterfall the teenagers of the region tend to use as a spot to lose their virginity. I could have gone to the funeral, but I didn’t. I made one call, found the Wolfs’ telephone line busy, and left it at that. I sent flowers and a note explaining that I was in Barranquilla, which was a lie, of course, and I remember the absurd difficulty I had in deciding between Barranquilla and Cali, which city would seem less unlikely or raise fewer doubts. I didn’t find out later if the Wolfs had believed me or if they’d recognized my rude lie: they never answered my note and I never went to see them after the accident. I began to study law, and by the middle of the degree I knew I’d never practice, because I’d written a book of short stories and in the process of doing so I’d realized that I didn’t want to do anything else for the rest of my life. I went to Paris. I lived in Paris for almost three years. I went to Belgium. I spent eleven months in Belgium, ten minutes from an unpronounceable village in the Ardennes. In October 1999, I arrived in Barcelona; in December of the same year, while spending the holidays with my family in Bogotá, I met a German woman who had arrived in Colombia in 1936. I asked her questions about her life, about how her family had escaped from the Nazis, about the things she found in Colombia when she arrived; she answered with a freedom that I’ve never found again and I noted down her answers on the squared pages of a small notepad, the kind that have a picture or a logo on the side (in this case it was a famous phrase in Italian: Guardatti dall’uomo di un solo libro). Years later I used those pages, those answers—in a word, that life—to write a novel.
The novel was published in July 2004. Its plot turned on a German immigrant who, toward the end of the Second World War, was confined in the Hotel Sabaneta, a luxury hotel converted by the Colombian government into a temporary internment camp for enemy citizens (enemies of Roosevelt, sympathizers of Hitler or Mussolini). Researching the novel had been particularly difficult, because some subjects continue to be sensitive or even forbidden in many families of the German community in Bogotá; and that’s why it seemed so ironic to me that after it was published so many people came to ask me to listen to their story now, that now I should tell their story. Months later I was still receiving emails from Germans or children of Germans who had read the book and were correcting one or two details—the color of a wall, for example, or the existence of some plant in some precise place—and scolding me for not having become better informed before offering me their stories for my next book. I replied with evasive courtesy (out of superstitions I can’t explain, I’ve never refused any offer outright). And weeks later another similar email would arrive, or a message from someone who knew someone who knew someone who had been in the Hotel Sabaneta and who could give me information if I needed it. And that’s why I wasn’t surprised to receive, in February 2006, an envelope with a German name on the back. I confess it took me several seconds to recognize it, I confess to having climbed two or three steps of the entrance to my building before the face that belonged to that name appeared in my head. I opened the letter on the stairs, began to read it in the elevator and finished it standing in the kitchen of my apartment, with my briefcase still hanging from my shoulder, with the front door wide open and the keys in the lock.
Isn’t it strange (the letter said to me), in Spanish there’s no word for what I am. If your wife dies you’re a widower, if your father dies you’re an orphan, but what are you if your son dies? It is so grotesque for your child to die that the language has not learned what to call these people, even though children have been dying before their parents forever and parents have been suffering the deaths of their children forever. I’ve followed your trail (the letter said to me), but up till now I’d decided not to do anything about it. Not to look for you, not to write, do you know why? Because I hated you. I don’t hate you anymore, or rather, there are days when I hate you, I wake up hating you and wishing for your death, and sometimes I wake up wishing your children would die, if you have children. But other days I don’t. Forgive me for telling you like this, by letter, one should tell people things like this face to face, live and in person, but on this occasion I cannot, because you’re over there, of course, you live in Barcelona, and I am here, in a little house in Chía that I bought after the divorce. You know about the divorce, I imagine, because it was the most talked about one of the year in Bogotá, all the ugly details came to light. Anyway, I’m not going to get into that, what matters now is confessing that I hated you. I hated you because you weren’t Ernesto, because but for very little you could have been Ernesto and nevertheless you weren’t Ernesto. You went to the same school, knew the same things, played on the same football team, were in the same row that day in the Teatro Patria, but you got to the bag of lottery balls first, you got the ball that should have been Ernesto’s. You sent him to Tolemaida, and I can’t get that out of my head. If you were called Arango or Barrera instead of being called what you are, my son would still be alive, and I would still have my life in my own hands. But my son is dead, he has this fucking surname and he’s dead for having this fucking surname, the name that appears on his tombstone. And maybe what’s going on is that I can’t forgive myself for giving it to him.
But why should I expect you to understand all this? (the letter said to me). When you didn’t even have the guts to show up at the cemetery to say good-bye to your lifelong friend. When you live over there, far away from this country where a person does military service and might not come out of it alive, living a comfortable life, what’s it going to matter to you? When you’ve gone into hiding since the death of your friend out of pure fear of showing your face and seeing that there is a destroyed family, that this family could have been yours and wasn’t simply by chance. What are you afraid of? Are you afraid it’ll be your turn one day? It will (the letter said to me), I swear to you, one day you will face a moment like that, you’ll realize that sometimes a person needs others, and if the others aren’t around at the right moment your life can come crashing down. I don’t know what would have happened to my life if I could have given you a hug the day of the funeral and said thanks for coming, or if you’d kept coming to the house for a meal once a week like you did when Ernesto was doing his service and had leave. We used to talk about Lance Corporal Jaramillo, Ernesto told us about that dungeon and the snake the cadets had to carry on their shoulders. Sometimes I think I would have endured everything better if I could have remembered those things with you sitting at the table. Ernesto loved you; you were going to be like those friends a person has their whole life. And you could have been a comfort to us, we loved you (the letter said to me), we shared Ernesto’s affection for you. But now (the letter said to me) that’s all water under the bridge: you weren’t there, you hid and denied us your comfort, and things started to go badly at home, until it all came tumbling down. It was at Christmas, already ten years ago, how time flies. I don’t really remember what happened, but people told me later that I had chased her around a table, that Pilar had to hide in a bathroom. What I do remember, however, is having taken the car to leave the party, and that I drove without really knowing where I was going, and that only after parking somewhere I realized I was at Puente Aranda, in the same parking lot where the buses from Tolemaida stopped, the same place where you and I used to wait for Ernesto sometimes and where we once had a conversation I’ll never forget.
The letter said all this to me. I remember, first of all, having thought: he’s sick. He’s dying. And I remember the immediate dismay, not sadness or nostalgia or indignation either (although some indignation, provoked by Antonio Wolf’s accusations, would have been legitimate). I did not answer the letter; I looked at the back of the envelope, confirmed that the sender’s address—that little house in Chía—was complete, and I put the envelope and letter on a bookshelf in my study, between two albums of photos of my daughters, those daughters whom Antonio Wolf was threatening. Maybe I chose that place to repudiate the letter, so that the letter would provoke repudiation; and I was successful, without a doubt, because during the year that followed I opened those albums many times and many times I looked at the photos of my daughters, but I never reread the letter. And maybe I would never have reread it if I hadn’t received, in January 2007, news of Antonio Wolf’s death. One very cold Monday morning I got up, checked my email, and there was a newsletter, sent by the alumni association of my school. His passing—a word I’ve always despised—was announced, the date and time of the exequias—likewise that word—and reminded us that the deceased—one more—was the father of a graduate, but didn’t say that his son had died many years before. So three months later, when I had to go back to Bogotá, I stuck the letter in with my papers. I did it because I know myself well, I know my quirks and my manias and knew I’d regret it if I missed the opportunity to see, even if from afar, the house where Antonio Wolf had lived his last years, the years of his decline and death, and where he had written the most hostile and at the same time most intimate letter I’d ever received. I let a few days go by after my arrival, but on the third I took the envelope and, in a borrowed car, drove the twenty or so miles between Bogotá and Chía.
Finding the house was not difficult: Chía is a miniscule town and walking from one side of it to the other takes no more than fifteen minutes. The numeration of the streets led me to a gated estate: ten houses of cheap brick, facing each other in two rows of five and separated by an area paved in the same brick, or bricks the same salmon color that always look new. In the center of the flat space was a soccer ball (a new one: one of those balls with silver and yellow) and a plastic thermos. There were motorcycles parked in front of a few houses; at the end, a shirtless man in sandals disappeared inside the running motor of a Renault 4. And that’s as far as I’d got, standing on the sidewalk in front of a caretaker’s hut with darkened windows, squinting to see if I could make out the numbers on the houses and guess which one had been Antonio Wolf’s, when the super came out and asked me where I was going. I was more surprised than him as I watched him return to his cubicle, call through the intercom and come out again to say: “Go ahead.” And ahead I went. Ten, twenty, thirty steps; people looking out their windows, behind the net curtains, to see the visitor; a door that opens, a woman who comes out. She’s about forty. She’s wearing a Christmas apron, although Christmas was four months ago, and she’s drying her hands; under her arm she’s carrying a plastic corrugated folder, the kind that close and open with a Velcro strip.
“Here’s what Don Antonio left you,” the woman handed me the folder. “He told me you were going to come. He also said not to let you in, not even for a glass of water.”
In her voice was resentment, but also obedience: the obedience of someone carrying out an errand they don’t understand. I took the folder without looking at her; I wanted to say good-bye, but the woman had already turned around and was walking toward her door.
When I got to the car I put the folder on top of the letter: the two missives with which Antonio Wolf remained present in my life sixteen years after we’d seen each other for the last time. I started the engine, not wanting to stay in front of the house and in front of the caretaker (a strange sort of embarrassment), but I was already thinking of going into the center of Chía, with its large free parking lot that had no attendants or gates. And that’s what I did: I drove down to the shopping district, parked in front of Los Tres Elefantes, and began to look through the contents of the file folder. None of what I found surprised me. Or rather: before I opened the folder I already knew what I would find, the way you know certain things from the back of your head, even before you get what we call intuition or a premonition.
The oldest document was a page from the school yearbook. There we are, the two of us, Ernesto and me, in our football kit, lifting the trophy of a Bogotá tournament. Then there was a copy of the April 1997 issue of the magazine Cromos, open at the page that announced, in five short lines, the news of the publication of my first novel. And suddenly I found myself reclining the passenger seat to make more room and organizing all the documents inside the car, using every available surface—the dashboard, the open door of the glove compartment, the back seat, the armrests—to spread out the chronology of my life since Ernesto Wolf’s death. There was the news of my books, every review or interview that had appeared in the Colombian press. Some documents were not originals but yellowing photocopies, as if Antonio had found out about the news item too late and had to photocopy the magazine at a library. Others were underlined, not with a pencil, but with cheap ballpoint pens, and in those passages I appeared making grandiloquent or silly declarations, or spouting clichés, or inanely answering a journalist’s inane questions. In the articles relating to my novel about Germans in Colombia, there were more underlined passages; and under every one of my comments on exile, life elsewhere, the difficulty of adaptation, memory and the past and the way we inherit the errors of our ancestors, Antonio’s lines seemed full of a pride that made me uncomfortable, made me feel dirty, as if it didn’t belong to me.
I never managed to find out who the woman who handed me the plastic folder was. At that moment, of course, various options occurred to me, and on my way back to Bogotá I was playing with ideas, imagining Antonio Wolf’s unknown life while driving distractedly down the highway. That messenger would be a woman from the village, perhaps a campesina; Wolf had hired her as a domestic and then, little by little, he’d come to realize he had no one else in the world. The woman was also on her own and perhaps had a daughter, a young daughter whom Wolf would have taken in. I imagined the change in the relationship between two lonely and confused people, imagined scenes of guilty sex that would have scandalized Bogotá society, imagined Wolf saying that this woman would keep living in the house after his death. But most of all I imagined him dedicated to collecting someone else’s life, feeling that he was replacing with the power of the distant documents the emptiness that the absence of his son caused in his life. I imagined him talking to the woman of that boy who wrote books and lived far away. I imagined him, at night, dreaming that the boy was his son, that his son was living far away and writing books. I imagined him fantasizing about the possibility of lying, of telling that woman that the boy was really his son, and I imagined him feeling, during the brief moments of the lie, the illusion of happiness.
© Juan Gabríel Vasquez. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Anne McLean. All rights reserved.