En Route to Marquesado

by Karl Chandler

Hot outside. Hot and dry. Elder Greenwood and I walked along the Avenida Benevides between Barrio los Pinos and los Alerces. The San Juaninos drive crazy along the Benevides. We walked quickly, cursing the sun. He was always walking as close to the wall as he could, sometimes even mashing his white shirt up against the adobe so he could use what little shade there was. She wasn’t that important to me. I liked the open air, even if it meant a burnt nose. So we walked, he on my left hand and hunkering into the wall—when there was one. Even so he loomed over me, and his shadow was my shade as we picked our way through the rocks to the bus stop. We were going to Marquesado.

I don’t remember if we had eaten yet. It was hot outside. The gnats hardly moved at this hour, only in the shade. That’s why I walked in the sun. I hate gnats; mosquitos are friendly than gnats. We were early, so we must have eaten in our apartment that day, but I can’t remember. Maybe we were going to eat in Marquesado. As we walked, we looked at his watch and decided to teach someone before the bus came. Someone awake who would listen.

Picking our way over the rocks and dirt, hardly looking up because of the sun and because we didn’t want to trip, we suddenly stumbled onto a vegetable stand. This was new. No vegetable stand was here yesterday, just rocks and dirt. But today something was different—a stand had burst out of the ground like its wares. Inside, watermelons and squash crouched in the shade by the tables that guarded tomatoes and peppers and onions and eggplant under the tarp, far away from the sun. Everything looked aged; it might have been there for years.

A man sat by the table. A woman—maybe his sister—stood behind him. They were drinking mate. I never could understand why they drank a hot drink with the sun scalding like it did in San Juan. Drinking mate and waiting for customers. Or perhaps hoping there wouldn’t be customers so that they could drink their mate. Or not caring. He looked like a man who did not care. His sister cared especially when she saw our suits and nametags. I think that’s why he agreed to listen to us: because his sister didn’t want to and he didn’t care. He cared only enough to make her angry. It was hot under the tarp, even hotter than in the sun. And it smelled like vegetables that had been there for years.

Elder Greenwood began the discussion, and I, bothered by the gnats in the shade, tried to concentrate on the words and the message. I drifted from the words to the watermelon to the tomatoes, and then settled on the Benevides. Not far from us the cars passed, less than ten feet from where we sat. They passed quickly, rending air already bent by heat. It was hard to tell where the road ended and the heat began. They mixed in little twirls that blended into one another, especially if I looked far away. I read once that’s how a mirage works. Looking far down the road, I thought I saw a puddle. A mirage. There were no puddles today.

Wandering back from the Benevides, I again saw the man and his sister. I heard Elder Greenwood winding down. It was my turn. I began to talk, telling the man of the mission of Christ while the dust and the gnats ground in my throat and between my teeth. The man was enjoying himself—perhaps because his sister was not. He answered my questions over the passing cars. The Benevides was a busy road. As I talked and listened, I thought it stupid of us to try to teach someone here, especially someone who listened to irritate his sister. Still I concentrated my efforts, hoping my feelings would burn into his heart. Elder Greenwood wasn’t paying attention. He was looking at the Benevides.

A new sound wormed its way through the heat. I talked and listened and identified the sound. It was a moto—a little motorbike that could hardly carry one person. Sometimes the San Juaninos rode by twos on them, and the driver would have to push with his legs for the first twenty-five feet to make it go. I talked. Elder Greenwood looked at the Benevides. The man’s sister looked at the Benevides. The man looked at me and at the Benevides. They all moved, looking closer at the Benevides. Then I looked. It was a bigger moto than I thought, light blue with a black seat and silver handlebars. It was going very fast for a moto. My grandpa has a red one and an orange one like it. A man was riding it—a young man. He was making a left turn by the grocery store on the other side of the road. He made a glorious turn, leaning so he didn’t have to break his speed. He was looking at the grocery store on the other side of the road.

Perhaps it was the heat. Perhaps it was the heat or the gnats, or maybe he was bored and was thinking about mate. Or maybe he just forgot that the Benevides was a busy road traveled by many buses and remises and taxis and motos. Maybe the man just forgot that the Benevides was a two-way road. I don’t know. He was dead before I could ask him.

Through the heat and the gnats on the other side of the Benevides ripped a remis, a little car with a big antenna. It was quieter than the moto. Perhaps the man did not hear it. The heat carried the crunch to us. We could almost hear the bones mesh with bumper and bike and gnats when the car hit the moto. It was a nice car, remises usually are. The man made no sound. He flew up and backwards, his eyes looking down and his feet rising. The car pushed the moto slowly through the gap between the man and the Benevides. He was very high when his feet came level with his head. The head plunged, face toward the grocery store, and the feet came over. He was too high above for me to see if his leg was mangled. Then the man looked skyward again, perhaps still alive. I don’t know. He was dead before I could ask him. His feet pointed skyward too, like a man looks in a coffin. Then he hit, his head at the door of the grocery store on the other side of the road. He was looking up, looking up at heaven. We couldn’t hear him hit because the moto was screeching along the Benevides.

Suddenly I was at his side—no, at his feet. I was at his feet looking at his face; I and his face and his feet looking up to heaven. Cars were honking. Elder Greenwood was yelling. The moto‘s engine was still popping. But everything was silent, too. The man was dead. The cement was cracked under his head and there was blood leaking at the base of his skull. Blood leaking over the new cracks. There was blood at the right side of his mouth, leaking at the very edge of his lips over his cheek and down around his neck. His body looked whole. I moved to his side and noticed that he had blood at his feet. It was leaking out of his pants. I wondered if his ankles were broken. Sometimes I still wonder. He was dead before I could ask him. I went back to his feet and looked at him. There was nothing I could do. I wondered if he had children. Perhaps it was the heat and the gnats, but he looked like a daddy.

Then it got loud again. The man from the vegetable stand was there. Elder Greenwood was there. The man driving the car was there, and then he left again in his car. He was escaping. The moto was there on the side of the grocery store, its motor still popping. I wondered what gear it was in. Everyone was there. People from the grocery story were there. Elder Greenwood was still there. He was scared.

“Come on,”  he said, “come on! We’re gringos. We’re Mormons. They hate us here. They’re going to think it’s our fault. They think we did it. Come on! Let’s go!”

So we left. We walked to where the dirt becomes asphalt on the other side of the Benevides. We returned to the vegetable stand and picked up our books. Looking up, we saw the bus. Number seven came toward us on our side. We ran and called it, and it took us breathing to Marquesado. I forgot whether we had eaten yet or not. Maybe we were going to eat in Marquesado. Instead, we just sat in a park and listened to each other breathe. It wasn’t hot anymore, and I don’t remember any gnats. And so we feasted on our own breath.