Burn

It must have felt strange and shocking and disorienting for a few seconds, until he realized what had happened. Then, it felt worse. Fede couldn’t believe what had happened: Alejo had drenched him in kerosene, and was now lighting matches and throwing them at him. Fede screamed in terror and ran from room to dark room, dodging the lit matches, as the two girls screamed too, and Alejo laughed that maniac laugh of his.

Fede didn’t burn alive that night, but could have. It happened in his Wonderland. El maravilloso mundo de Fede, as he liked to refer to it. An unbelievably derelict, damp Buenos Aires hundred year old house, with tiled, dark patios full of rusty bicycle skeletons, dead plants and piles of debris. I used to stop by there to drink mate tea and smoke the bad, paranoia-inducing BA weed, often. I remember winter nights, bitterly cold, the hand-knitted turtleneck my grandma had given me, and the secondhand US Army jacket I had bought years ago in New York not enough to keep the cold away, shivering, passing the mate and the joint back and forth in one of the patios – or in the so-called living room, the kitchen, the workshop or any other area of his house, for they were all equally cold and damp and miserable – looking at, or listening to, a police helicopter circling above… years later, in another country, I learned to call them ‘ghetto birds’, but I didn’t know the term then, and besides, San Telmo, La Boca, Constitución, are not strictly ghettoes, they are very old neighborhoods full of all kinds of things, some good, some bad, but definitely very far from the mono-ethnic projects and dens and bodegas implied in the US understanding of the term. I disgress.

Fede would talk and talk and talk. I would play the part of the polite listener, encouraging him with the occasional question or comment, a part I play well. I feel comfortable playing that part. I’m pretty sure now, decades later, that at the time I had more, better stories to tell than he did. I just didn’t feel that was the case. Yeah, I would travel a lot and see all kinds of places, meet all these different characters and all that, but at the time, I still felt the need to return to BA for part of the year, to work dead-end jobs and try to finish university. That, in my opinion, made me dull and undefined (here now, gone tomorrow), and I wasn’t too keen on sharing what had happened in Mexico during the summer, besides a few general, introductory comments, soon to be obliterated by Fede’s verbal tide.

Because he could talk. In fact, he was like a machine gun that way, a phenomenon of nature, a never-ending, wild, sometimes headache-inducing verbal assault. He would be working on one of the bicycles he was constantly fixing, he would be lighting up the propane stove to heat up some water for mate, he would be taking a shower; the yap yap yap would never stop. It was amazing. His theories were far-out. He was into Castaneda and Freud and many other things, he had these systems and theories that explained and discussed the Universe, no less, but at the same time he was very much a creature of his neighborhood – and mine – taking great pride in knowing the history, minutiae and little-known facts about each and every character that populated this, his, world. For a while (we had been acquaintances first, friends later, for a number of years) he thought this, his, world, the world of the hundred year old façades of some buildings, the newer, flashier, coarser fronts of others, and more importantly, the stories and characters and stories that happened behind them, was also my world, so he ignored the few comments I would haltingly, feebly attempt to share, brought back from places like Oaxaca or California or Valparaíso, to move on to what had happened to the crazy old widow that had poisoned her husband in their flat at the corner of Bolívar and San Juan, or to the coke pusher whose own daughter had ratted him out to the cops – and I was happy to oblige.

I was fascinated by the mythology of the ‘hood, too. I adored those streets and looking up on freezing winter nights to see not a black sky, not stars, but the reddish, throbbing, menacing cloud cover that reflected back the lights of a million pizza joints, a million traffic lights and neon signs, and glowed with a sickly hue that I thought was the most authentic, fascinating thing in the world, because it was the place I still called ‘home’.

Fede was a handsome youth, a bit shorter in stature than me, with those features that are so typically Argentinian, that speak not of a common ancestor and not of two main lines that merged together to create a nationality, Indian and Spanish, like most Latin Americans, but of a mess, a hodgepodge, a chaos of origins that somehow gives us our particular look, a surprisingly uniform appearance, a bit darker here, a set of blue eyes there, but Argie through and through, which is to say, Sicilian, Lebanese, Ukranian, Welsh, Basque, and fuck knows what else, all the starving rejects of the world of a hundred years ago merged into one identity, one look, one hard to miss accent and way to walk and stand and stare. His fine features, his enthusiasm and endless stories and jokes made him a hit with the girls, more or less. I mean I knew some of his girlfriends over the years, but he wasn’t a gigolo or anything like that. He just had company most of the time, even if it meant for his partenaire to come to his Wonderland and having to fuck under a pile of old blankets because the place was so damned cold and damp, not to mention filthy. His most striking feature was his nose, straight and proud and big, that seemed to pierce the air and break open a path for the rest of his face as he moved forward. Now and then, he suffered from bouts of psoriasis that made him miserable and would bring forth some envy for the rest of us that didn’t suffer that particular form of misery, along with self-deprecating attempts at humour. It can’t be easy, having your skin turn into some white pinkish mess covered in scabs once a month or so, when you’re thinking things are finally starting to look up…

– I WILL CURE YOU OF YOUR PSORIASIS FOREVER!, Alejo had drunkenly yelled at Fede as he chased after him, throwing matches that would flicker in the dark rooms before hitting the dusty floors and going out, having failed to ignite their terrorized target. How many matches? I don’t know. Never thought to ask. But I do know many other details of the episode, from four different sources: Fede, Alejo, and the two girls. Sorry I can’t provide a name for them; I forgot. Just ‘some girls’, like that bad Rolling Stones record.

Now Alejo. If Fede’s oversized personality was ever going to meet its match, it would certainly be Alejo’s. They were different in that Fede’s father was an antiquarian; Alejo’s, a newspaper vendor. Fede had grown up in gritty, downtown, historic San Telmo, while Alejo was from San Martin, in the vast, sprawling, unapologetically ugly conurbano bonaerense: the suburbs, were rules are different than in the Capital Federal – Algiers the former, Paris the latter, if you will.

Fede’s fun, explosive personality wouldn’t shy away from openly liking (and dancing to, whenever possible & at least one chick around or sometimes not even that) the more popular, ‘mainstream’ bands, that Alejo dismissively chucked in the trash can with a sneer. Alejo was the ‘artiste’, el artista, and his tastes were certainly more elevated. When I met him, his favorite music was Sonic Youth, the Cramps, Einsturzende Neubaten and Bowie. Nothing Argentine, except tango. All Argie males older than 30 revive the dormant tango virus that is with us since birth. We originally absorb it through our fathers, the bus drivers’ radios, the Italian greengrocer guy humming a few lines when he’s happy or sad, the buskers and tourist attractions dancing it – overdoing it, badly – in touristy areas, like parts of San Telmo. Where Fede is from. Where his old man had been an antiquarian, owning some shops or not owning anything but still trading in Louis XIV tables, Nazi era daggers, and autographs of Carlos Gardel or Hedi Lamarr. So growing up, Fede’s flat always looked highly unusual and eclectic, with the rugs and statuettes and whatnot parked in there between owners. Alejo’s living room, on the other hand, looked like some 70’s sitcom, with a big TV ruling what were pretty dismal and argumentative family dinners, pettily focused on profit, gossip and fútbol, soccer, commentary – that, on good nights.

Alejo got to hate all that, even if he depended onto it – the house in San Martin, mom doing the laundry and giving him Tupperwares of food for the week, the occasional gig helping his old man at the news stand when he was too tired, or there was some good fútbol on TV on a Sunday – well into his 30’s, when I stopped seeing him as a twenty eight year old myself, definitely leaving Buenos Aires after longer and longer absences and never again hearing from him, except the few times I go back to visit and I have pizza and moscato wine at ‘Mi Tio’ in San Telmo with my good friend Daniel.

In the last decade or so, Daniel has spotted Alejo selling handicrafts at some open air fair once, and exchanged a few words, and was glad the exchange had been resolved pleasanty and satisfactorily and told me, laughing over the tomato, garlic and anchovy slice – no cheese, please, never cheese on an anchovy pizza – that he didn’t plan to visit that particular open market again anytime soon. Because Alejo got real psycho in the end, and I should have known, I should have heeded Fede’s advice in the weeks and months after the kerosene cure for psoriasis incident (I don’t think it’s a good idea to live with him, Rulo. I’ll say no more. You know what you’ll do).

So while perfectly capable of dealing with a random encounter with Alejo, I have no particular desire to have one, like the rest of my friends of those years who knew him: Paula and Blas that moved to Barcelona at about the same time I moved out of BA and to Bolivia myself, Daniel & Marie Jeanne still in BA, a couple others in BA and Naples. No Alejo, please. I’m sure he has new friends now. Or maybe old friends from a time before us. He’s a likable guy, see. Psycho, but his conversation is very pleaseant and learned. Good sense of humour and a bit of elegance, beggar’s elegance if you will, in his demeanor, and daily life, like deciding what to do with the last ten pesos, food or pleasures, and among many jokes and general laughter, deciding upon cigarettes and a nickel bag of something and a last bottle of cerveza – which would never be the last anyway if anyone had joked about it and drank it and sampled some of the mediocre contents of the nickel bag and still had some pesos on him.

Anyhow, my point was that Alejo became very passionate, and kind of a conoisseur about things like Picasso, LSD, Spanish underground comics, sexual perversions, old forgotten comedians and such. And very funny and creative at talking about all that, mixing it with lowbrow lore and fatalistic, enigmatic, not-funny-at-first-but-very-funny-later-when-seen-through-an-existential-light pantomimes and jokes. Grand-Guignol, I guess you’d call his style, but never mind.

Damn, what a character this Alejo was. And his art was very good, in my opinion, too. When we lived in La Boca, he’d take whole weeks to explore a particular hunting grounds in the rusty old shipyards and warehouses, coming back with cartloads of heavy, murderous-looking chunks of iron, for his sculptures. Then he’d take another week wearing nothing but his shorts and a welding mask, welding it all together in crazy 20-hour artistic marathons, looking posessed – he was tall and muscular, very pale, with long, limpy crow-black hair and beard, and piercing blue eyes probing you behind a nose as fantastic in size as Fede’s. He always reminded me of Rasputin. The mad determination, mysterious ruthlessness and emanciated body trying to keep up with the feverish mind flying high above it, connected by a length of twine, like a kite.

After all this happened, I still lived with Alejo for another 2 years in a big house a couple of kilometers away from Fede’s Wonderland in San Telmo, but almost an alien world even though close in distance – La Boca, with yet another set of rules, even though technically it’s still within Capital Federal limits. A combination SoHo, Hialeah, Genoa and Paraguay, if that makes any sense, presided over by the majestic, battered, alive with glorious and nefarious memories Bombonera, the Boca Juniors fútbol club stadium, and Caminito, with its gaily painted corrugated steel walls, miniature balconies full of hanging patched underwear, cheap portrait artists sitting with their easels on the sidewalks, the rotten and polluted smell of the Riachuelo nearby, the ‘tango shows’ and cantinas that dot it like a pox, a sick feeling of wasted decades, bad food and hangovers when you have to wait for the bus next to one on a Sunday morning, the camera toting Germans and smart alecky panhandlers, the covachas of the drug dealers, the two-peso-blowjob nutjobs catering to truck drivers crossing the main drags towards the bridges into the conurbano and beyond, the dirty cops smoking cigarettes in their Ford Falcon patrol cars…

– So that’s the story, then?, Lily asked in her curt British accent. These two character friends of yours and what happened that night… or rather what didn’t happen, since you say that Fede survived, right?

– Right.

– But you weren’t there.

– I knew all 4 people that were in there that night. The two chicks, I have to say, were rather dull, and I lost count of them a little bit after. Fede was trying to impress them, apparently, and when that didn’t work, he started mocking them and making fun of them and looking for Alejo’s complicity in doing that. Alejo, who had been silent and kind of only staying for the bottle and the bag of weed as he obviously thought all 3 of the company moronic and unworthy of spending any more time with, lost his marbles then and grabbed the kerosene can…

– Dude…

– And Fede never talked much about it, except in horrified tones, but Alejo…

– Of course

– Of course. But Alejo’s way of telling the story was hilarious. He would mimick everyone’s movements and sounds… ‘and the shorter chick would go Ahh’, and he’d open his THC-reddened blue eyes wide, and put his hands to his cheeks like that ‘scream’ picture… ‘and I was going mad there with the general cretinism and the sickeningly sweet liquor and I’d go SHUT UP ALREADY … and he’d be running from room to room like in those 3 stooges films, kicking a door open and running and exiting through the opposite one, going AHHHHHHHHH! NAHHHHHHHHH! PARAAAAAAA! STOP!, hein hein hein, ha… is there any beer left?’

– Hilarious, you say…

– Well, it was. He had a way of dealing with things, hardcore things if you will, adding an element of humour into it. He was very embracing, I guess, of his own dark side, as shown by his murderous, rusty iron works of art, that if you walked into the big common room at that house and it was night and no lights were on you could perfectly well get impaled into them…

– Ha!

– And one fascinating thing about the guy is that, the fact that he thought that everybody – everybody – had a dark, bad side to them, and his job when first meeting you was to determine what your particular evil was, to know it like a mariner has to know the rocks barely hidden beneath the surf if he’s gonna be successful at approaching the beach… maybe not planning to do anything in particular about the rocks, except avoiding them… but he has to know where they are, doesn’t he…

– And is it so?

– What?

– That everybody has a dark side to them.

– I dunno. Maybe.

– Tell me more about them, and about those mad crumbling old houses full of crazies and non-stop action, it seems…

– There were plenty of ordinary days when nobody attempted to burn anyone else. But I’ll tell you more another day. I gotta walk to Victoria Station, it’s time to take that train to the airport already… will you walk with me, friendo?

They had been sitting on a bench in Green Park, leisurely looking at some blond young guy throw a frisbee and at his Lab retrieving it, and at Londoners and tourists cruising up and down the pedestrian paths in the hot June afternoon. It was Rulo’s last day in London, and they wouldn’t meet again until it was her turn to catch a flight to Miami in six months’ time, perhaps. God willing and all that, Inshallah. They both stood, stretched, and he grabbed his light backpack. They started walking towards the train station.

– Maybe on Skype one of these days. Or write a story.

– OK, I will.

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