We gave ourselves to seeking but we did not search. There was no ultimate objective that we sought along the cement corridors of the slowly dying city, there was no light that glowed in the distance to announce the approaching end of our quest. Where such a light could have been, instead there was nothing, a kind of nothing that pulsed and expanded, swallowing everything that it touched with its formless fingers and its invisible weight.
The night was the border of our understanding, and the streets were the lines etched on the face of our dreams, and so we moved through the vast labyrinth of a world hidden so deep within us that we had forgotten it was part of us, as much as our skin or the tips of our fingers. Instead, it now seemed populated by strange figures, by the laughing faces that refused to share their private joke and instead looked away from us, somewhere to the left and behind us, where the nothingness was slowly growing, but we couldn’t turn around, so we couldn’t see.
We moved without a goal and so our night could have no end, it could have no clear moment of closure when the streetlights would turn themselves off one by one and the birds of the shadows would dissipate into their hidden nests in the dark forests beyond the reach of our sight. Instead, the night birds would simply pause in mid flight and wait for our quest to continue, staring at us with big blank white eyes. Those big white eyes couldn’t say anything, and that was their most fearsome quality, their lack of meaning, their lack of message.
We gave ourselves to seeking but we did not search. Instead we slowly moved over the ragged surface of the world and sometimes we came to a place where we could rest. There we would stay for a while until it was time to move again.
* * *
A young blonde in a red mini skirt, golden arms shining in the waning sun, was reaching towards her suitor with an air of friendly flirtation. He was dressed in a light blue short sleeved shirt and dark slacks. It was clear that he was still only a suitor because his movements were too tentative, his words spilled out in measured cadences that let me know that he was still finding his way through the mysterious territory of the blonde’s middle realm. If I could clearly see it from a hundred meters away, I was certain she could see it as well and she was now in the process of playing with this knowledge, letting it simmer gently in the final hours of the afternoon, letting it glide along the outline of her inner desires to see if it would find a home. I was too far away to hear what he was saying, but I could still feel the rhythm of his sentences by the movement of his lips and the slow dancing of his cheekbones. I could have sworn I knew all the words.
They were both leaning against the edge of the sparkling light green fountain in the very center of the plaza. As the water exploded in its recurrent symmetrical dance, an almost invisible shower of tiny teardrops would roll on them, gently caressing their skin as they faced each other, as she reached for his upper arm and ran her ringer over his skin.
She pointed to her own naked forearm and smiled, and he smiled in sympathy and in triumph. It was clear that a threshold had been crossed and he only had to stay the course to eventually find his way into the center of her being. Her slender body swayed back and forth, as if she was a mermaid floating underwater, letting the transparent waves take her where they may.
In a gray world of ever diminishing pleasures, happiness would have to emerge from simple, small successes, moments too small to be fully described or held in a linguistic jar, tight and forever sealed.
Seeing the suitor smile made me remember the security guard outside, the one who had helped us.
I had first noticed his uniform: white shirt and gray pants, black belt, black walkie-talkie and black shotgun. Red cap with the words “gran via” laced across the top, all of it letting us know that he was a protector, a defender of the peace, a macrophage of the establishment, all of it letting us know he was someone we could trust, someone we should trust.
His face was thin and long. His skin was pasted against his bones and pushed into the crevices where the bones met and slid against each other. There were premature wrinkles over his face that extended from his chin to his ears, maybe from smiling while worrying, maybe from worrying while smiling.
As I looked into his eyes after I had asked my question, I could see that he was full of anxiety, full of a desperate need to do good, to fulfill his intended purpose within the larger structure, to avoid making a mistake now that he had a chance to be helpful, now that he had an opportunity to be a little more than a prop that signified security for the crowds of eager shoppers that walked past his station without ever turning around to look.
He was clearly disappointed when he didn’t know the answer immediately, but he raised his right hand, palm towards us, fingers outstretched, and he said in a loud, clear and hopeful voice:
“Don’t go anywhere. I can find out. I can find out. I can find this out for you.”
He talked into his walkie-talkie and there were loud bursts of static as he switched from channel to channel, looking for someone that might help him, someone that would have the answer that we needed.
I looked at my father who was standing behind me, looking up at the large glass building that was one of the main entrances into the large and luxurious shopping center we had come to visit. His eyes were squeezed together in an expression of focused concentration. It was an expression I immediately recognized.
He was examining the inner structure of the building carefully, looking right through the pastel colored walls into the grids that defined the shape, he was finding the inevitable mistakes in it, finding the evident lack of engineering and architectural interest and attention, the lack of clear rational thought. He was thinking that it had all been put aside in the service of an image, a colorful Disney version of reality that attracted the wide eyed shoppers like a carrot laced with strings of gold, and attraction meant sales and sales meant money and money meant power, and that was all that truly mattered to the people that had materialized the shopping center from the raw jungle and the moist soil of the Salvadorean landscape. He was thinking of ways he would have done it better, maybe ways he could even now improve it if they would let him work on it, if they would let him apply a different kind of attention and purpose to the structure of the buildings.
Of course, this would never happen. The buildings had their purpose and they accomplished it well. And their original predetermined purpose limited and established, with a terminal cadential flourish, what they could ultimately become.
I looked back at the security guard who was still flicking around the world of the walkie-talkie, a landscape of words encrusted with static and broken sentences that came in and out of the tiny speaker like serpents’ tongues. His eyes were turned away from mine and lost in the vast parking lot, maybe surveying the territory for criminal activity among the many colored parked cars, while waiting for someone to finally respond to his query.
I hoped that he would find the answer. Not for our sake but for his.
Finally he turned towards me smiling. His quest had been successful and he was now beaming with pride. My Dad came over and the guard explained, in carefully measured words, how we could reach our intended destination. When my Dad said “thank you” the guard said “si, hombre!” which solidified my sympathy for him. He was letting us know that he was like us, that we were like him, that we had to stand together against the waves of decaying entropy which seemed intent on swallowing us all.
Even as we walked away, I could still feel the warm glow of his success trailing around me like a golden cloud barely visible in the shifting air of the late afternoon.
* * *
As we walked up a short set of shiny gray stairs, I saw an overweight teenage girl in tight red shorts making her way up to the main floor of the shopping plaza. She was wearing a white blouse with short sleeves and light brown sandals that displayed her naked feet. Her legs were thick brown slabs of meat covered in a light shade of tiny light brown hairs and very faint early signs of cellulite. Her flesh danced and shivered with each step that she took and I could see waves of fat and muscle roaming over the landscape of her brown skin. I focused my gaze on the back of her thighs, where the flesh seemed specially soft and pliable, even more naked and vulnerable than the rest.
She walked slowly, nervous with her physical exposure and yet eager to be exposed, secretly looking forward to the moment when there would be nowhere to hide and all those people on the other side, all the shoppers that roamed through the open air plaza, would lay their eyes on her naked legs and she would then feel their beams of attention like pinpricks of light.
The people out there would be like distinct simulacrums of all the people that she already knew, since people repeated themselves like characters in comedy shows or low budget movies, here as much as anywhere else. And maybe among the crowd, there would even be some people that she had actually talked to, friends from school, from work, family members, old neighbors.
But even in the eyes of the mere simulacra, she would spot the signs of clear recognition. She knew who was out there and she wanted them to see her, to know her, to caress her with their collective acknowledgment.
As she moved up, she could feel the approach of all those eyes that would soon land on her like slimy tentacles made of invisible desire. As her excitement grew, her steps grew a bit faster. But her nervousness betrayed her, it slid through her thick body like a pack of black worms digging through old garbage, it made her stand out but not in the way that she would have hoped for. Her nervousness formed concentric circles of unease around her and these circles extended towards all the onlookers, making them feel uneasy with her presence without them knowing why.
I could see that it was coming from her, that it was only her shyness, her eagerness, her fear, I could see what it was so I could dismiss it and still admire her loveliness. I could look at her yearning eyes and look past the nervousness to the invisible creature underneath that had the very same simple yearnings that were hiding under my own mask.
But the others would not be so kind. They would simply feel discomfort in her presence and they would quickly find the fastest way to remove it, they would localize it on her and determine that she was to be avoided, that there was something wrong with her, that she was not to be liked or even acknowledged. And they would retreat like migrating birds into the concrete sunset.
Maybe she would never step outside in her red shorts again, maybe she would never come to this place again, maybe she would simply take their visions into herself and make them her own. Then she would recoil whenever she saw herself in a mirror and there would be no further escape, because mirrors were everywhere and she simply had to look into their surface for an instant, if only to quickly look away.
I momentarily wished I could let her know what was happening, what was about to happen, but she had already walked around the corner and she was forever gone from my sight.
The last I saw of her was her light brown sandals as she took quick light steps along the side of a large clothing store. The people were roaming beyond her in all directions. All watching. All being watched.
* * *
We walked through a large Pizza Hut that overlooked the center plaza, where there were three fountains. It was a wide open space where the people walked from store to store, talking, pointing and laughing. I took out my video camera and started to film what I could before it got too dark, before another security guard would come to let us know that we couldn’t do this, that video taping the premises was against the rules. The privacy of the corporations had to be protected even as the corporations themselves prodded with electronic eyes into the fabric of this little city that had come bursting out of the jungle, this labyrinth of scraps of paper and plastic, this Venice of spit and tears.
I let the eye of my camera slowly trail over the people down below: the blonde in her red mini skirt who trailed a map of desire on the sweaty flesh of her suitor, the little toy train that moved slowly over the large gray bricks with only a little bored kid for a passenger, the two men in “guayaberas” who discussed a business deal in heavy words that were loud enough to make it all the way to where I was standing at least a hundred feet away, the thin dark brown girl in the coffee stand who looked at the shoppers passing by with eyes of sheer loneliness, eyes like tiny black pools of rapidly dwindling innocence.
It all had an air of slow rhythms, of paced strolling and systematic buying, machines opening and closing, swallowing money and exhaling receipts. These people came here to find some kind of community, but they could only find each other, and they were all so lonely and lost that when they looked into each others’ eyes, they had to look away. Then all there was left to do was shop and maybe hope that tomorrow would be different. And the slow rhythms continued, and the distant conversations, and the shoppers came and went, always different, always the same.
As we walked through the open space, there was a small group of young rich kids who advertised their affluence with their sharply etched fashion and their stylishly trimmed hair. There were three boys, all in their early twenties, all dressed in smooth light pants and soft colored shirts, all leaning back in just the same lazy way, a posture that said “I am here because I belong here. I demand explanations but I don’t have to give them. I know what is good and what is not, and I will tell you about it only if I choose to.”
I recognized the posture because I had taken it myself more than once. (Growing up among the rich kids in the American School of El Salvador, the posture was probably transmitted through the air that we breathed, it probably lived on the backs of tiny bacteria that jumped from mouth to mouth, hand to hand, sliding over the delicate surface of imported designer shirts and shiny pocket calculators.)
The three rich boys exuded a kind of strength that went with their arrogance. This strength was in their numbers, not only of the group that was present in that very moment, but of all the ones that stood behind them, the ones that had come before them: fathers, uncles, older brothers, all the long lineage of sharply dressed rich kids that formed a tribe all their own, a special light skinned breed that jumped out as particular and privileged in this land of sweaty brown skin wrapped over brittle bones.
These boys that I now looked at stood on an invisible pyramid of privilege that fed their secret assumptions: that they were inherently better than all the others in every possible way, that there was something that hid under their skin that made them superior in ways that all the others couldn’t even begin to comprehend, that their desires superceded the needs of the others in a basic way that called for no further justifications. All of it added up to a solid heaviness that was unknowable even to the ones that carried it within themselves.
There was a girl sitting among them, and she was one of them, only in the way that she was also beautiful and perfect and dressed in a perfect smooth black blouse, as smooth as her light brown skin, only in the way her large golden circular earrings were dangling from her ears and they shook back and forth with each movement of her head in a way that suggested royalty. But she was also not truly one of them because they wanted her as much as she wanted them, and their private unspoken inner game was based on that slight edge of separation that allowed for the invisible movements of desire.
She would let her naked leg dangle back and forth, her upper thighs barely covered by a blue mini skirt, and she would rub her inner thighs together absentmindedly, knowing that their eyes would rest on her momentarily before looking away. For that brief recurrent moment, their gaze would run over the smooth contours of her naked thighs, and the soft sound they made as the two expanses of flesh met in the open space between her legs, the doorway to nothingness that called to them from underneath the blue hem.
She would take note of their attention and she would be pleased and her pleasure would manifest in a further dancing of her earrings or a subtle smirk as she made another comment about absent girls that they all knew, absent girls who were free range targets due to their absence. (“Can you believe her? I mean, really…it’s not like we’re in grade school anymore…was is she thinking? I mean really… what could she possibly be thinking?”)
Ultimately, aside from being the object of their underground desire, she was truly one of the tribe of privilege that had controlled El Salvador since the days of the conquistadors. She would someday produce others like them, others like her, and they would someday sit in benches just like this one in far flung shopping centers of the future where there would be no palm trees and no mosquitoes and no inconveniences of any kind for they would have been all surgically excised from this sacred space reserved for the fulfillment, and creation, of immediate, insistent desire. Maybe, by then, there would no sweat and no dark brown skin at all for it would have been banished away from the sight of the only ones that mattered and all the rosy white shoppers would walk back and forth, eager for another fix, ignorant of all the terrible and pathetic things they would never be forced to witness, all those things that would surely still linger somewhere beyond the boundaries of their enclosed sterilized world.
For now, she leaned her head back and laughed, and her laugh carried the same distinct message of superiority. It echoed against the gray cement floor and I could almost see it bouncing all the way up the main path to the flowing green fountain at the center. Whatever she was laughing at was beneath her, so far beneath her that it was an undeserving gift for it to temporarily be grazed by her attention. Of course it would soon be gone, for in her power, in their collective power, they had no need for focused attention, their vast warehouses full of money kept them from such trivialities. Soon they would have moved on to other subjects. And soon they would be gone from this place as well. But others would come to replace them.
* * *
I walked by a little bakery, a tiny little alcove that was surrounded by the off white walls of a large department store. The bakery was all covered in a red hue that was meant to signify the hot chamber of an oven, and everything inside glowed with that same redness: the long french breads, the pastries, the cookies, the cakes, even the shelves and the silver metal displays and the glass counter which stretched from one end of the little store to the other. It seemed as if everything inside that place was in the process of baking, everything was hot and steaming and ready to be eaten.
I turned towards it not because I was interested in pastries or anything of the kind, I had never sought them out like others do and I would usually pass by a place like this without a second glance. But still this time I did turn towards it, because on this afternoon every corner was a doorway to new discoveries and this particular doorway called to me with its burning red. I looked through the doors and I saw a uniformed brown girl inside.
She was a little ball of eager happiness, tightly wrapped in her bright red and white corporate uniform, which couldn’t fully hide her peasant origins. Her eyes were big and round and brown, a darker brown than her skin which was in itself very dark. Her smile seemed wet with sincerity and her eyes jiggled like overgrown rainbow bubbles at the top edges of her very round painted cheeks. Her teeth shone bright white in the midst of so much red and brown and her hands were wrapped tightly together, attempting to communicate a calm professionalism that her jiggling eyes tried their best to betray.
A passing visitor in these concrete lands of shining opulence, she was probably the one who kept her peasant family eating, the one who paid the rent, the one who left early every morning, squashed in one sweaty bus and then another, all dressed up in her white and red outfit which squeezed her thick brown body so tightly that little balls of flesh would try to slide out through the sides. She would make it here every morning just in time, just so that the rich tribe could lay their gaze on her with disdain and then discard her like another piece of superfluous architecture.
She was one of the nameless, like the security guard, added bits of humanity that maintained the space, biological props, living components that could be replaced as easily as changing tires or light bulbs; these living accessories required no maintenance, no attention, no contact at all. An invisible hand placed them here and set them in motion and the hand would not appear again unless there was some kind of trouble, and then it would simply pluck away the offending figure and replace it with another, and no one would ever notice, and no one would ever protest, and no one would ever cry, at least not in the presence of others.
I walked inside and asked her where the Sears was. She told me it was right behind us but it was closed, they had closed just a half hour ago. Her little pink mouth squeezed tightly in sad disappointment, as if she wished she could open the large department store for us, for me, if only to let us know that she was valuable, that her presence here was not lacking in worth and purpose.
I saw the signs of disappointment crawling slowly over her brown face and I told her it was fine and I told her not to worry, there was no problem at all. Then her lips opened in a grand smile, and I wondered if it was so unusual for someone to care what she was feeling that my little show of concern was like sunlight peering through the windowless walls of a dark and humid dungeon to which she had been confined for years on end.
I saw all her white teeth framed by her full pink lips and her eyes lowered when she saw that I was looking, and a blush rose to her cheeks, so that her round face was all now red and pink and brown and lovely. Then she lowered her head, almost to the level of her small shoulders.
I said “thank you” and she said “No problem,” as she rose from her bow. Then she shook her head, to let me know that she meant it, that it really had been no problem. As I walked away she was still smiling brightly.
* * *
The sun had gone away and the eerie blue night of San Salvador sank deep into the crevices between the old buildings and the tall dirty walls, all lined with old broken glass that shimmered faintly under the weak reflected light of the moon. The night flowed through the gutters and it crawled up the shaking little mango trees and it dangled from the edges of the billboards that proclaimed an end to AIDS and new cell phone plans that would bring about the end of all human worries. It surrounded us like an invisible web as we drove through its realm, the darkness sliding into the car and pressing against our skin with its soft cold touch.
We left the main highway and took a long turn that deposited us in a place that hadn’t yet been altered by its bright modern lights. This was what remained of the neighborhood that once had been, before the highway came with its broad shoulders of concrete and its loud trucks and its rectangular green signs that spoke of places far away. Here there were old businesses, or what remained of them, their names stenciled in big red and green letters on cracked walls.
There were no street lights or little house lights to struggle against the rolling webbed shadow of the night. Here there were only thick metal gateways that sealed everything up, away from the encroachment of the inhabitants of the darkness. There were bits of newspapers and soda cans and rumpled Kleenex and old juice cartons, all rolling back and forth along the edges of the sidewalks and into the open gutters, carried by the whistling waves of cold shifting air. There were little houses with overgrown weeds that rose above the metal railings, all ending in sharp points like deadly spears, and long dark leaves that danced in the wind, but there was no other movement, no lights inside the house, no colorful shadows betraying the presence of a TV set, no sign of any other living creatures at all.
Maybe they had stopped being houses long ago and were now empty receptacles for other midnight activities. I pictured little cloaked figures running across the dark overgrown lawns, never looking up, never revealing their faces, never betraying their true purposes.
I looked at the little white path that led to the front door of one of these little shuttered houses and I saw a tiny white cat running across just as the light from our car passed him by. The door was sealed tight like a tomb, covered in a thick layer of metal, surrounded by scarred white walls that had been painted over with gang sigils and political declarations of imminent triumph and power.
There were several large eighteen wheeler trucks parked along the sidewalk, just as dark and lifeless as the houses and the little stores. It was hopeless for me to try to pinpoint what these trucks were doing here at this time of night, away from any warehouse which would receive them, away from houses where their drivers may live, away from their time and their place, resting among the decaying remains of a world they had helped to destroy.
More overgrown bushes peered out from between the trucks and on the sides of the long empty sidewalk. I could picture dirty vagabonds staring at us from deep in the heart of the green darkness as we drove by, but there was no clear sign of them and they would have to remain a possibility that was all the more insistently present for its absence of empirical evidence. I could simply feel the eyes upon me but I couldn’t place them. I could feel that they saw us as intruders. I could feel that they weren’t glad that we were there.
* * *
There was a large white church on the old wide road that led to Santa Tecla. The church was glowing in the falling darkness, surrounded by rows upon rows of tall metal railing, covered by prickly metal wire. It pulsed with the gothic splendor of its carefully molded details, statues of saints and virgins and demigods, all outlined in the pure whiteness of its eerie glow. The courtyard around it was a faded gray by comparison, and I could barely detect the outline of a basketball court, and maybe a few single story buildings, all flat and nondescript next to the shining classical temple.
It struck me as a magnificent palace of order that had struggled for centuries against the disarray that threatened to swallow it, the garbage, as it was, made of plastic and metal and paper and cardboard and flesh that washed against its concrete shores. All of it, the social darkness that grew with every poisonous breath from the shaky blue buses, the quick fluttering of bats among the rustling tree branches, the roaring of the trucks as they passed by, shaking and straining with the weight of their cargo, all of it pulsed around the glowing church, at the edges of the metal railing, slowly trying to get in, slowly finding the chinks in the ancient armor, the gaps in the fortress walls. It was only a matter of time before the massive shadow would find its way inside and then the glow would be no more.
There was a bruised yellow taxi parked right in front of the church. A few steps away, the taxi driver was standing with legs half open, staring into the emptiness of the courtyard. He was thick and brown, and even from the distance, I could see that he was covered in a thick film of sweat and his shirt had large thick wet spots under his arms where the thick sweat had poured through the fabric. He had a large bouncing belly and he had to make an effort to reach around it so that he could grab onto his brown penis and urinate against the metal railing. The urine hitting the metal bars made a sound like a thousand little demons dancing on a long cylinder made of iron and silver, laughing and jeering in high tiny voices as they banged their heads against the metal surface.
The driver was looking up at the single white cross as he peed. Even if he had wanted to look at himself peeing, his own belly would have maintained his modesty. So he stared at an old symbol of salvation as the urine cleansed him of the sins of the last few hours, giving him a chance to sin again. One way or another, the weight of his biological conscience had to be released. Maybe the driver was now discovering that no punishment is eternal and no salvation is complete. Maybe this realization came with the taste of old cheap lipstick and a mouth that tasted of cigarettes and decomposing cheese.
The driver turned to look at his own taxi cab, to make sure that it was still there, to make sure that the darkness had not taken it. Then he looked to both sides of himself, suddenly realizing that he was himself in as much danger of being taken, and there would be no one left to look for him if he became one of the lost.
* * *
We drove into “Metro Sur” (one of the shopping malls along the Boulevard of Heroes, old enough that it had been here when I was growing up, new enough that I remembered a time when it hadn’t been there.) We needed to make a full turn by driving through the parking lot, coming out on the other side. The security guards sitting at the main entrance to the lot raised their eyes to look at us as we drove past them. They calmly surveyed us as strange midnight visions: a small red car populated by two men without any apparent purpose.
(Purposes were a precious commodity at any time in this world of limited possibilities, but as the hours fell upon each other and the darkness grew thicker, the possible purposes became fewer and fewer, and the ones that remained were shapeless and unwholesome, they throbbed with the kind of fright that pulls you in even as it pushes you away, like a naked woman walking through a cemetery, all aglow with raw desire, her fingers stretching towards long black fingernails, all covered with drying blood.)
I could hear the guards whispering to themselves “what can they be doing out here at this time?” and I could see that we would have no answer that would satisfy them if they were to ask us directly. So we could only keep on moving, hoping that nobody would demand an explanation that we couldn’t give.
We drove all the way through the dark parking lot to the other side, where we would find the exit that we needed. But when we arrived, that exit was locked shut. A black metal gate barred the way, and I could see a thick knot of silver chains wrapped around its heart, making sure that nobody could pull it open.
I turned to look at the closed little shops, all covered in thick metal blankets, all tightly shut and groaning under the weight of their heavy hopes and fears. There was a single small car parked all by itself in the long parking lot in front of the line of shops. It was old and beat up but it was clearly not abandoned. Somebody was still working out their own style of business in the hidden guts of the shopping center, maybe inside the car itself, maybe behind one of the thick silver blankets that protected the closed shops from intruders. I tried to look through the windows of the car but there was no sign of life.
As we drove back to the place where we had entered, we saw another car coming towards us. I looked straight at the driver but he didn’t look back. His eyes were fixed on the distance behind me. He was a young dark skinned man, thin and covered in seriousness. He was wearing a dark suit, with a black tie still arranged perfectly around his neck. A man of the world. And yet he was driving towards the black spot where the world itself ended, where all the shops were sealed tight and there was only a single car waiting for a glimmer of a purpose.
I wondered where he was going. I wondered what he really wanted to find on this cold night. But soon he was gone and we would have no answer. If I had no answer for myself, if I couldn’t say what my own purpose was for being out here, then I couldn’t expect to find such an answer in others.
We rolled out through the one open exit where there was a single fat guard, also dark skinned but no longer young. I said “good night” to him and his face reacted with shock. We were quickly gone so I never knew if he responded. But I could still feel the touch of his unspoken questions on the back of my neck, sliding down my spine like a long slimy tentacle.
* * *
Driving towards the downtown of San Salvador, we saw a car coming towards us from behind, ramming through the empty streets at great speed. It was shining with bright colored lights and making repeated loud sounds, a kind of electronic burping and gagging that seemed specially startling in the middle of the night.
The loud colors and sounds made me think it was the police. It rushed toward us in a frantic daze that seemed to spell the end of our explorations in a single brutal crash. At the last possible moment it swerved around us, making my father’s little red Fiat almost flip sideways. Then we saw it run away in front of us, just as fast as it had come towards us, just as loud in its statement of existence, in reds and blues and yellows that flashed over the shadows of the closed shops and restaurants like reflections from the day painted on a murky canvas.
Next, there came a black truck that slid around us, also from behind. There were men dressed in black standing up on the bed of the truck, each holding a large black shotgun with a ready finger on the trigger. They carried a world of sudden violence with them, a throbbing sphere of crackling electricity that swirled around them in ribbons of violet light. They constantly looked forward and backward and sideways, knowing that the sphere they carried around themselves would find its counterpart, sooner or later, in the dark alleyways of this city of desperation.
A couple of the men looked toward us and I saw a question flashing in their eyes, a question that swept like a yellow tear through the hidden blue channels under their skin. But the truck kept on moving. My father turned towards me and he suggested that the first car had summoned the truck full of killers. I nodded and agreed that it seemed that way.
Later, we passed the car full of lights and sounds as it had slowed down and made a couple of turns around the empty streets of this twilight neighborhood. I looked inside and I saw a family playing with loud electronic gadgets and big flashing lights. Not the police. Not the summonners of killers. Nothing at all. My father said nothing as well. Meanings were interchangeable and what was true a few minutes ago had already been forgotten.
A little boy stuck his head out the window of the car full of lights and looked at me and his look was thick with questions. He had thick round cheeks and big curious eyes that focused on me without a hint of shyness. I looked back at him smiling. What did I mean to him then? What assumptions and myths rattled through the shifting maelstrom of his unconscious to create a certainty as to my nature? Maybe years later he would dream of a man in the passenger seat of a little red car, a man with a long dark beard and long black hair who smiled at him before driving away. Maybe he would wake up and wonder where such a dream had come from and he would then determine that it was a dream about his boss, about his friend, about his lack of security. And so I would have a new meaning, my face would be the same but my implications would be different and I would continue to slide around the edges of his words when he wasn’t looking, and I would push in the direction of the darkness when he was trying to focus on the light. All from a single moment of certainty, all from a look and a smile, impressions that passed across our eyes like flashing lights over the windows of a closed cafeteria in the midst of a sweaty tropical night that conspired to blur the edges of our vision.
* * *
There was a long curve, defined by a tall wall of stone that turned into a wall of grass that turned into a barely visible barrier of twisted chain link which was surely crowned by wheels of razor sharp barbed wire, although I couldn’t see it in the shadows and could only imagine the sharp metal points that would dig into an intruder’s body if one tried to trespass.
A vagrant was moving slowly over the broken edges of the dirty sidewalk. At first I spotted him only as a vague shadow that was taller than the rest, it took me a moment to realize what it was that I was looking at. He had an old brown sports shirt ripped nearly in half, a pair of old black pants that were just long threads of ripped black cloth that left most of his brown thighs exposed, his hair was long, greasy and tangled and it fell over his shoulders in waves of knotted black dirt.
His eyes were open and they shifted with a kind of bewildered confusion. His steps were a kind of chaotic dance, every choice was constantly and visibly questioned and rethought, every time his foot moved one way, it immediately moved back to where it had been and then he tried again, again hesitating, again stepping back. In this way, he slowly moved up the sidewalk that ran along the barrier of stone and grass and wire.
Maybe he would eventually get to the end of the long curve and then he would have to walk all the way back, having questioned then the purpose of his entire journey. His skin was so dark with dirt that it seemed black, as black as the sky itself, or the other shadows surrounding him, or the soil that slid around the long green leaves that reached towards the sidewalk like hungry fingers eager to scratch at the white concrete. His head danced in counterpoint to his body, unable to determine a single place to rest, a single place from which to direct his spastic movements.
I saw him as a lonely figure among the mountains of trash that extended like large waves from the white concrete surface of the sidewalk and onto the broken asphalt that was the street. I saw him as a kind of surfer of refuse that was a kind of refuse himself, bewildered, forgotten, sick and alone.
But he wouldn’t know it. He wouldn’t recognize what I saw and what I thought, and even if were to say it out loud, it would remain unreachable, unimaginable. What I saw as permanent and essential he would see as an exception, and what I saw as his nature, he would see as an accident that was on the verge of being solved. The sight that was before my eyes was banned to his and so he would never know his place in my universe. In turn, I would never know my place in his, if I could be said to have one at all.
As our car turned onto a side street, I saw him still dancing in sudden jumps and repeated backtracks, forming a long thin shadow over the light that streamed from the street lamp in the corner, a shadow that danced without knowing that it was full of a kind of grace that nobody would ever recognize.
* * *
As we approached the heart of downtown, I saw a group of vaguely fearful people waiting for a bus. They were standing in front of a very small parking lot in front of a small light green office building. It was a place that seemed pregnant with loneliness, specially now that the workers had left and the windows were crisscrossed by a metal grid that left them isolated from the world that they were meant to invite with their transparency. The white concrete of the parking lot was pockmarked with grass and weeds and the green walls were adorned with gang graffiti, more desperate attempts to establish a clear presence in a city that had misplaced its eyes.
A very thin man, in long dress pants and a wrinkled white shirt, was making a faint attempt at elegance. He held his wrinkled chin up with pride and his hands trembled with an uncontrollable rhythm. He held onto a thin attaché case with both trembling hands and he refused to look at the others that waited with him, as if to clarify that he was on a different level than they were and that it was only by accident that he had ended up here, in this particular corner, in this particular state, waiting for this particular bus.
There was large woman in a red dress next to him. She was holding onto a large straw basket, as wide as her arms were long. Her large breasts rose and fell with effort every time she breathed. Her skin was covered in a thin layer of sweat that glowed in the faint yellow bath of the single street light. Her eyes consistently avoided looking at anyone, trying to become invisible through an intense show of indifference. Maybe it was a skill that had taken her many years to fully make her own.
Behind them both was a young woman in a light brown skirt and a yellow shirt. Her eyes were mostly focused on the sky above, maybe praying for a safe trip back home, maybe praying for the simple blessing of noise and black smoke and a light headache, all of which could be so much better than the other things that could happen, the things that would inevitably happen sooner or later, for the city was small and the places to hide were quickly fading away.
She held onto a little boy with her left hand, and the muscles of her thin brown arm were taut with tension. Praying could be a very hard job. The boy seemed very tired and eager to find a place to rest. He had lost the energy necessary to escape from his mother’s painful grip and he simply dangled like a shopping bag, his eyes sliding into oblivion before coming back up to breathe.
They all looked constantly towards the street, all of them anxious to see their bus coming in the distance, all of them anxious to leave this heavy gray place of sweat and decay, all of them knowing they would have to be back tomorrow and the day after that. There could be no end to their dreary punishment. Without hoping for salvation, they looked for the temporary respite of the bus in the distance, the bus that spoke of a kind of warmth, found only among people who recognized you and waved when they would see you approach. That warmth was far away for all of them, maybe completely lost for some, but the bus could still signify its promise, merely by being the means to travel to another place, another chamber where there would be some quiet time to sleep and dream and forget the ugliness that would soon beckon them once more.
We passed by and I turned to watch them vanish in the distance, still waiting for the trembling and grunting mechanical monster that would wrestle their frantic inner voices down to a simulation of silence.
* * *
The deep heart of downtown San Salvador was a dark and lonely place of desolation broken in places by yellow and white lights. As late and desolate as it was when we made our way through its narrow streets, there were still small groups of people trying do business in the shadows, still hoping that some kind of fearless wave of shoppers would appear at this late hour and buy enough from them to make it all worth it, enough to make them feel that they had used their day well. It was clear to me that this wouldn’t happen. It was probably even clearer to them, for they knew much more about this place than I ever would. And yet they were still out there, with their little street shops made of blue plastic that flapped in the wind, and old misshapen stands and displays made from discarded wood, and little wire chairs that creaked when their owners leaned back on them, big female hips wrapped in old cheap clothing pressing down hard on thin metal strips that could only barely take the weight.
There were also small groups of guards, armed with small black guns and sawed off shotguns, each group coded with different colors, a rainbow of uniforms, each uniform signifying a different purpose and a different set of loyalties. These men did not seem imposing in this environment, instead they seemed vulnerable and weak. They clung to their weapons with angst, much like believers would grab onto a cross hoping that it would protect them from evil.
Except for the few brave stragglers, most of the street shops were closed. The shop owners had left their merchandise out all night, covered in large plastic canvasses wrapped with thick rusty chains and heavy padlocks.
“They can’t take all their things home. Who knows how far away they live. They have to leave it all here and hope that it will still be here in the morning.”
There were some guards standing close to the rows of closed little improvised shops. Maybe one of the many uniforms meant that a particular shotgun was there to protect the inventory of the street vendors who were rich in raw effort and will, but who lacked any hope or influence in the world of policemen and politicians and soldiers that loomed over the city like an invisible web of rusty iron. Their hopes were minimal but they would defend these minimal hopes with a ferocity that would shock upper class sensitivities. Something told me that it would indeed be very dangerous to reach for one of those heavy padlocks. There were eyes in the darkness that would not take kindly to such liberties. It was possible to steal from these people, but if one wished to do so, one would have to be ready for a fight.
* * *
As the little red car turned another corner, I saw several big fat women, with dark thick arms and big flapping breasts that shook and danced back and forth every time their owners moved, they danced like great overripe watermelons painted dark brown, waiting to fall off their branches at any moment and sink into the damp earth where they would spawn more fat women to carry them. I saw them walking up the shiny dark lonely street, all by themselves, as calm and contended as if they were taking a stroll in a large quiet park at midday, where children would be playing and many colored balloons would float all around them, announcing that the day was true and golden and pure.
But there were no balloons and no children here. The night was full of evil in its most concentrated potential, it loomed from every alley, it floated over the streets like noxious gas. And yet the women walked as if nothing could touch them, as if they were inherently protected from anything the night could bring them.
These were the saleswomen of the streets that refused to give up, the ones that would not surrender to the encroaching darkness and run away from the cold wind in the packed trembling buses that spewed dark clouds of poison into the sky. These were the real Salvadoreans, the ones that refused to be afraid, the ones that, energized by that refusal, had themselves turned fearsome.
Along the same sidewalks and across the street from the women, I saw several young men, in sweat stained white and yellow T-shirts, walking as calmly as the big women did, with a certain bounce in their steps that signified inherent toughness, fearlessness and deadliness. I looked directly at them, trying to understand their nature, their purpose, their goal in this cold night of dancing blue plastic. But they were like blind spots to me, their faces revealed nothing, no thought, no motivation, no desire. They simply walked and I would never know where they were going.
They never turned around or in any way acknowledged our presence. We were outside of the game they played so intensely, so we didn’t exist, we were like flashing dreams that passed across the edges of their consciousness, visions to be ignored until they became dangerous, useful or desirable. We were none of those at the moment so we didn’t merit even a sideways glance.
“Everybody around here is armed. No matter what they look like. No matter how poor they may seem. Everybody is armed. It’s a simple fact of life, like wearing a shirt or combing your hair. Something you do because it has to be done.”
* * *
I saw a record shop that specialized in illegal recordings, all pirated copies of hit records in Spanish and English, hits from the past and the present, all processed into the same blue and white form that could be sold at ground level prices. Instead of hiding it, the shop proudly announced its pirate nature, letting shoppers know that here they would find the cheap music they had been looking for, the kind that traveled freely through the back alleys of the Internet, the kind that had lost an owner and had now been set free to roam through the streets of the third world in search of new ears to caress and rattle. Bill Haley and Cat Stevens, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zepellin, Ray Connif and Duke Ellington, Mocedades and Juan Luis Guerra, Silvio Rodriguez and Miami Sound Machine, all the same here, all sold in white and blue, all sold at the same price.
There was a small group of men and women in front of the store, all of them talking excitedly and being very noisy. I thought then that maybe the store sold more than records and maybe the best way to hide your true criminal nature was by presenting a lesser version of your real crime.
Large blue letters were painted over the white wall. The large letters were only partially obscured by the night: “The home of cheap music.”
The men and the women laughed all at once as I saw them disappear past the edge of my vision. Maybe someone had made a good joke. Maybe they would all laugh every so often, joke or no joke, to banish the impending sense of doom that pressed closer all around them, thick and heavy like the shadows.
* * *
We came to a street where a large group of people had taken over the asphalt pathway, blocking the passage of any cars or buses and holding onto their newly claimed realm with an ease that spoke of self proclaimed rights built upon the threat of violence. I saw a skinny man with a large machete tied to his waist and a woman in a blue dress that revealed a large swath of sweaty cleavage that reflected the light of the single street lamp and made her chest shine a golden brown. I saw several young men crowded around themselves, their backs to us as they deposited their attention into their midst, into the heart of their secret circle which was closed off to us.
They had no eyes in the back of their heads, no visible eyes in any case, but they were heavily aware that they were creating an obstacle that was impossible for automobiles to push through. We quickly avoided the incoming confrontation by sliding down a narrow side street lined by gray concrete walls covered in graffiti. I heard the sound of rumbling murmurs coming from the little crowd we left behind. I wondered what would have happened if we had tried to make our way through them.
* * *
On a specially dark corner lacking a street lamp or any other source of light, I saw an old security guard that shivered with aching cold as he stood at his lonely post. He was a very old man, thin and covered in thick wrinkles. His eyes were downcast, staring down at his clenched fists. He stood on the steps of a corner store which was already sealed by its silver metal blanket. The blue walls were covered in black splotches and the sign above them was impossible to read. The old security guard had an old silver rifle and a colorful machete holster latched to his belt. He held the rifle between his forearm and his chest, pointing the barrel towards the dark heavens.
As we passed by, he didn’t look up, his eyes were firmly locked on his own trembling body and the fresh new garbage that was blowing in the wind all around him, rolling back and forth on the broken asphalt like a small tornado full of discarded memories. The flying garbage sometimes rose as high as his shoulders and then fell back to street level to roll around some more.
I wondered how long the old man had been doing this job and if he even remembered what he was supposed to be protecting. Maybe he was simply meant to be a sign of perseverance, a message to potential thieves to let them know that there was still some kind of consciousness hiding behind the thick and dirty blue walls of the corner shop. If this was the case, then the message was not fully delivered as the old man stared at garbage and simply waited for the night to pass him by.
* * *
We drove by Cuzcatlan park. It was a place which, for me, tasted of long forgotten memories, of short horseback rides and a long green patch of grass under the warm sun of distant nearly forgotten Sundays, of ice cold “minutas” which I never really liked but I always wanted to try anyway, of a long concrete balustrade of yellow arches that separated the world of green grass from the cracked asphalt of the dirty street outside.
Even in the middle of the night, with no sign of guards or visitors, the park was lit so brightly that it seemed like a strange ghostly apparition in the midst of the Salvadorean darkness, a hole into a dreamworld. There were long rows of yellow lights that extended deep into the park and glowed over the empty little metal tables and the brown grass and the bits of trash that danced lightly in the wind. The light itself made the place seem even more desolate, it emphasized its loneliness, it demarcated its silent threat.
The park, as it now existed, was a long flat lawn punctuated by small trees, metal poles for the lights, small circular tables that referenced another time in history with their baroque adornments, a time many decades ago, when entire families would come to eat here, and talk and play, under the auspices of a sun that promised happiness and peace and safety. Even if all these unspoken promises rang false to the adults, who had already grown weary and cynical with the unpredictable twists of destiny, the kids would believe in them, and maybe the adults would allow themselves the luxury of pretending that they also believed, and then it would all be momentarily true as they all surrendered together to a common illusion. Maybe all truths were temporary and transient, and, if so, then the sun wasn’t lying at all, it was merely stating a truth that would soon be overcome by clouds and storms and stars.
Maybe something like this communal surrender to optimism had happened this very day, just a few hours earlier. Maybe it had never happened at all and it was only a dream that was bursting freely from my own mind, like a strange Egyptian god germinating from the seed of all those empty metal tables under the yellow lights and emerging fully formed from the center of my forehead. Real or not, I could almost see the silhouettes of the little children as they ran circles around their parents, and the many colored balloons that floated around their heads, and I could hear the sound of their cries and their laughter, and the sound of many rancheras which melded into an endless drone of hopeful love, satisfied love, broken hearted love and vengeful love, all kinds of love, so that all love inflected purposes became a single love purpose and there was only the sound of the honking cars and the growling buses left to break it into pieces again.
As we drove past the abandoned park , there was no drone of love stories and no children’s laughter, there was simply nothing under the glow of the yellow lights and the nothing took the shape of potential happiness wrapped in brown cellophane, carefully prepared for the ambiguous gift of another day. Tonight, we were the scene’s only observers and we would soon be gone, leaving it once again to its own emptiness.
The fence around the desolate yellow park was tall and strong and laced with razor sharp wire, and there was a thick silver lock on the gate that announced its solid strength through its brilliant clear reflection. There was no easy way to get in and, once inside, there would be no place to hide or run for cover. I wondered if some vagabond now and then would make it over the railing and the wire and then would find himself an exhibit in a strange midnight zoo which no one came to visit. I wondered what his nightmares would be as the cars passed by and he slowly realized that he was melding into the cement seats and soon he would himself forget where he had come from or where he was going, soon he would be another element of the silence and the long wait for a resting place would finally be over.
I turned back to look as we passed by, and for a moment I thought I saw a flying figure zooming carelessly around the tables, but it was only a bat, or a passing thought that didn’t manage to leave before the thick gate had been locked for the night.
* * *
We drove up a barren curve that rose from the Boulevard of Heroes and turned towards the Primera Calle Poniente. This is where my mother and I had once lived, before that single night of gut wrenching surprises, when the Real came knocking and changed both our lives forever.
We stopped to look at the old gray house, the house of many short memories compressed into curving walls and bright yellow shirts and friends that smiled with pride and soldiers that smiled with curiosity and hidden intentions, the house of tall closets and little balconies, the house of empty pools that promised a life of luxury that never quite materialized, the house that was my house for only a short time and yet it insisted on being my house long after its real presence had fled my weak grasp.
The tall gray outer walls were now stained with long trails of rain water that had spilled from rusty metal tubes sticking out of the sides. These stains were like long thick tears that ran down the gray face for years and left trails of red and yellow refuse, stripes of decay on the fading grayness.
Aside from two men standing by the curve about twenty meters away from us, there was nobody around. Nobody outside, and nobody inside. The house was dark and oppressively quiet. The two men looked over at us with curiosity when our car came to a stop but they soon returned to their own devious business of acting as if nothing had ever happened, as if it was perfectly normal to simply stand in a dark corner of the city while the cold wind brushed against your shoulders.
There was now a car mechanic shop next to the gray house, built on the open space where once there were trees and thick tall bushes full of black insects and little snakes. A long tin roof, blackened by grease and smoke, towered over the empty garage. I looked up to see a single yellow light bulb swaying back and forth on the center of that metallic roof, dangling yellow light over the empty garage and covering its walls with dancing shadows.
Looking up at the stained gray walls, I finally felt that this was no longer my house, my home. This was no longer the place where I belonged, if it ever had been. In that one moment, I was finally given my leave, I was finally released from my imaginary imprisonment. The feeling of sudden liberation radiated outwards from my chest and vibrated through my body.
In a single clear flash, I realized that this thing I felt was applicable to the entire city, the entire country. I was now consciously a free voyager simply passing through this place, and all the figures I saw through the whole of San Salvador were only dancing shadows on the dirty walls of a room that I had once inhabited, a place I would never truly know or understand, a decaying edifice standing on the ruins of another land which I could now only vaguely remember. Friends and family, lovers and strangers, guides and liars, all were the same in this ongoing carnival of shadows.
Instead of sadness I felt an overwhelming sense of relief, as if a big weight had been taken off my shoulders and it now rolled down the sidewalk, free to join the garbage and the people of the night. The shadows still danced across the walls of the mechanic shop, but now, instead of ominous, they seemed to be a celebration, a feast of departures, a midnight festival of silent release.
* * *
It was very late by the time we drove back up El Paseo towards Escalon. The thick current of cars had dwindled to just a few stragglers, husbands coming home to their angry wives, wives coming home to their dead husbands, teenage kids eager to meet the world that was itself eager to swallow them, lonely men who had even lost death as a faithful companion and now searched for life among the remaining corpses and the hungry scavengers of the urban jungle.
All these shadows driving back, each alone in its own motorized chamber, all of them brought together by their nighttime nature, all returning from their secret rendezvous, all touched by the faint color of shame and the growing glow of relief. One more night when nothing happened, one more night when nothing happened at all. How they wished that something would finally come to them. How they wished that nothing ever would.
We approached the old fountains, and I looked to my left, to the place where the twin cinemas had once stood. The thick red buildings were still there, they still retained the basic shape that they once had, back when all pleasures could be contained on a flat screen lit up in multiple colors in the artificial darkness of a warm afternoon, back when all mysteries emerged from loud hidden speakers, when all I needed to be happy was ten colones and a friend or two, and all concerns would vanish with the slow opening of a thick heavy curtain and the sound of music and explosions.
The outer shape of the buildings was pretty much untouched but the inside I couldn’t even begin to imagine. I wanted to explore them directly, I wanted to find out what had become of my memory, I wanted to see if there was still a trace of what once was, if the world of manufactured fantasy was still living in a trance of subtle vibrations, floating lightly upon the new shape of the real, upon the new shape of the present which didn’t care for straggling thoughts of the past.
On the big white sign where the new movies had once been announced, it now said “Casino. Please come in!” I remembered that my father had once mentioned the proliferation of casinos throughout the city. He had said that they were ugly places, places one wouldn’t want to go. I asked him repeatedly what was ugly about them, what was it that made them places to avoid, but he would never give me a clear answer. Instead, he would just shake his head and squeeze his face, as if the raw stench that came from within them was so strong that it hurt him to even hold their image too long within his thoughts and he had to expel them quickly through his nose and eyes like poisonous bacteria. He wanted to let them float away, away with any possible answers to my questions, away with any hope of clarification. Later, he told me they had all been closed and that had been the end of my wondering.
But here was a casino and it seemed to still be open, even late into the night when the late night stragglers were finally agreeing to go home. There were many dark sleeping cars in the parking lot and there was a bright white light in the lobby, in the same place where I had once shivered with desire and fright, wondering if the door man would allow me to walk into that afternoon’s movie showing, even though I was too young and too vulnerable according to the official government board of film morality. Now I was old enough for anything, nothing could stretch me out further than I had already stretched myself, and nobody could stop me from seeking further ways of being open.
So we stopped and parked on the thick gray bricks outside the long row of carefully trimmed bushes.
My father was clearly reluctant. Much like he had been reluctant when I had mentioned the possibility of going into the casinos in Las Vegas or New Orleans. As it was back then, when I asked what the problem was, he would shake his head and simply say that it was better not to go there, that those places should be avoided. I don’t believe that he purposefully didn’t want to tell me the reason. Instead, I believe that he didn’t know it himself. It lived under the surface where his conscious mind couldn't hold it tightly with its fixed linguistic fingers, it lived in the places that could not be determined, limited or finalized by logic, it lived in the edges of the blue line architectural maps, where the other dreams were hiding, ready to fulfill their place in the world, as ready as the walls of brick and cement, as ready as the lights and the doorways that would soon become artifacts of mass and weight and form in the land of matter where dreams transcended their symbolic genesis and transformed into untamed things beyond their creator’s control. As ready but not as conceivable, not so easy to hold and mold and define, not so easy to outline in numbers and set aside for subsequent revisions.
The first two times I asked him, he didn’t give me a clear answer. I had simply acquiesced to his silence and we had driven on past the bright lights of the casinos. This was the third time and I saw that it was my duty to insist. And I did. He was still unable to describe the nature of his reluctance but he nodded and gave me a simple “yes.” Followed shortly by a terse: “if that’s what you want…”
Once the decision had been made and once my father’s little red car slipped easily into an empty spot between two dark blue BMWs, it seemed that all signs of hesitation vanished. My father turned off the engine and we stepped out into the cold air of the night, feeling it directly all around us for the first time in many hours.
After being protected in the Fiat’s little red embrace for so long, I felt somewhat vulnerable and naked outside. I closed the door quickly and we walked around the green bushes, towards the open doors framed by the inner bright white light. I felt a touch of the old apprehension, as if the old door man would still be there, all thin and wrinkled and brown and haggard, ready to look me up and down and quickly determine if I was old enough to step inside, the old thin man still ready to be the final guard in the gateway to moral damnation. I wondered if his ghost persisted here like mine, and if he still insisted on looking at everyone that stepped through the doorway, unaware that his presence was no longer required, unaware that he had long ago lost his power to block the entrance, unaware that the old movies had gone elsewhere and something very different waited inside.
At the doorway there was no thin door man, nor any evidence of his ghostly presence. Instead there were three men dressed in expensive gray suits, all standing around and talking quietly to each other. They all had a touch of menace and violence that hovered over them like a black cloud, even if they made very distinct efforts to hide it. They smiled at us warmly as we walked up to them and they welcomed us into their realm with open arms. They stepped aside to let us pass through them and pointed ahead, letting us know that we should keep on walking.
We stepped through this gauntlet of gray suits and I realized that these were a higher level of security guards, they had graduated away from the burning sunlight and the blue and black outfits and the heavy black shotguns that were the staple of all those other guards that I had seen standing in front of pharmacies and supermarkets and tiny boutiques all over San Salvador. These men now guarded the night with their weapons safely hidden under their elegant jackets, allowing them to give the impression of simply being elegant men that happened to stand at the doorway to the casino.
These men seemed more scarred by the world than the bored security guards of the day, and yet their smiling offer of friendship was sincere enough that I felt vaguely protected by their presence. It was clear to me that I was at their mercy. They would allow me to walk in, they would allow me to walk out. It was their choice to be kind and their choice to be brutish. I had no input into their inner workings and so I was at peace with their decisions.
Inside the inner door there were two more men dressed identically to the other three. They smiled as well, in a way that cut right through the red light that suffused the space inside and made me feel as if we had just walked straight into a pool filled with the blood of others, strangers we would never know even if their blood now made its way into our nostrils.
I looked around slowly, while someone said something behind my back. The old movie theater was now a big open space filled with lights and sounds and people. The old cinema seats were gone, and the screen and the thick curtains were gone as well, but I could still detect the presence of the old cinema hiding under the restless heaviness of the new casino.
I saw it as a kind of entertainment center, much like the old arcades my Dad and me used to visit throughout my childhood, endless hours spent rescuing some alien civilization while destroying another one, all accompanied by lights and sounds and imaginary explosions. But this arcade was painted in the colors of an American porno shop: red and black and bright yellow, a strange combination of twilight darkness and hot garish light. The entire floor was covered in black rectangular machines that made an assortment of electronic noises, some simulating sadness, some simulating adventure, some simulating moderate success, some simulating celebration and triumph.
There were men seated in front of the machines, hunched over as if they were holding an invisible cloak over their heads. The seats they occupied were made to resemble the seats in a luxury sports car, head nestled closely on both sides, smooth black leather surface, thick arm rests, a smoothly curved back. They all looked as if they were about to fly off into the screens themselves and leave this world of red desire far behind. Of course they wouldn’t, for the redness had them at their mercy and the seats were merely an implied promise of an escape that would never come.
Aside from a bit of talk from the men in suits near the entrance and the soft voices of the waitresses, there was no sound of conversation. Just the loud bleeps and blops from the machines and the breathing of the lonely men which I perceived as a wave of angst that floated just above the ground, oscillating slowly back and forth over the whole room without ever really moving, just more and more angst accumulating and growing over the soft red carpet that covered the floor from wall to wall.
Each man kept to himself and yet they were all together in their intense interest in the proceedings within their individual machines. They hardly even looked up when a waitress came by to take a drink order. They just kept on hoping and hoping and hoping, as if hoping itself was a skill that they would soon master. Maybe this next game will change things around. Maybe my wife will be asleep when I get home. Maybe my lover will return from the land of the dead. Maybe I am not so sick and the doctor is wrong, after all they can make mistakes just like anyone else can. Maybe this is all a dream and, if I hit just the right jackpot, and I hear it ringing with electronic explosions all over the wide bright screen in front of me, I will suddenly blink and I will be sixteen once again and I will quickly brush away the nightmare of slowly sliding down a narrow red tunnel of hopelessness that ends in the abyss of an endless night.
The first thought that crossed my mind as we walked down the carpeted steps was that something wasn’t right. Something crucial was missing. Maybe it was the fact that there was no music other than the sound of the machines, so that the room seemed to me like a spaceship that had stalled in mid-flight and everybody had decided to look into their own screens to avoid looking at the nothingness that pulsed menacingly just beyond the walls. Maybe it was the lack of screams of happiness, for it seemed that even when these men won something in their individual games, they still kept just as quiet, just as still, their eyes still fixed on the bright colored screens as they sipped from a drink placed at their side.
Each won game was a reprieve from losing, and it was terribly temporary and fleeting, so it could only bring a single breath of relief and nothing more. And each lost game was another step away from breathing, like a red noose that slowly crushes your throat inch by inch, showing no hesitation, no empathy at all as it takes away the slender cord that still connects you to life. There could be no real celebration in winning because soon you would be losing again. Losing was the only thing that was certain. And there could be no exclamation upon losing because it was simply the rule of the land and, in any case, there was nobody there to hear you or in any way console you. You couldn’t leave because you had already lost too much. You couldn’t move because it would remind you of who you once were and then the pain would overwhelm you. So you would continue to stare and your eyes would shine in many colors as they reflected the jumping figures on the screen. Then another sip from the drink and then another. And another game would begin. And then it would all repeat, all of it, one more time.
There were many waitresses walking around the room, some standing by the long black bar on my right, most sliding close to the seated men and then sliding away if it didn’t seem that they were needed. They were all sumptuously clothed in old fashioned typical Salvadorean dresses, wide long skirts and tight corsets, all in multiple colors that seemed only a little faded by the strong red light that overpowered everything. They were all young and pretty, their skin seemed faultlessly smooth and soft, somehow transformed by the red light into an illusion of physical perfection . They were all in their late teens and early twenties and they all smiled constantly and flirted intensely with their eyes with anyone that happened to look their way.
There were also more men in suits that walked around among the machines, without any apparent purpose, and yet guided by their own secret calculations. They moved slowly and looked all around themselves, letting their attention fall on one man or another, on a bleeping machine, then on another man. Sometimes their eyes would move to one of the waitresses and then that waitress would move quickly, as if pulled by invisible strings. Unlike the girls, who purposefully made themselves known to the many men who were sitting, the men in suits made themselves invisible. They were like transparent observers that could only be spotted from a distance. I could see them from the steps that led down to the main floor, but soon they would become invisible to me as well as I entered their territory and I would become a new blind object for their supervision.
A girl stepped toward us with her bright smile that somehow seemed sincere even though I could sense that it wasn’t. Her hair was black and long, falling in soft curls to her thin brown shoulders which were naked over the wide hemline of her colorful dress. Her eyes were soft and alluring in the red twilight, implying false promises of wild abandon and unbridled passion. She spoke in that soft, serious and professional voice that Salvadoreans learned to produce when they felt that they had progressed up to a higher level of society, a place where all rooms had carpets and subtle wallpaper. Others like them would recognize it as well, a kind of air conditioning in the mouth, polarized windows in the eyes, and they would feel comforted because this sophisticated voice spoke of clean rooms and empty streets without garbage, structures that functioned perfectly and efficiently, streams of money that fell like generous waterfalls over calm pools of dark blue power that slowly grew without the limits of tortillas and contaminated water. So the voice perpetuated itself, through long white corridors and glass walls overlooking a silent volcano, until it came to places like this where a young girl in a folkloric dress spoke it to let us know that things would be done correctly and precisely, that she knew what she was doing and that we could trust her. And we did trust her, so the voice had done its job.
She led us to our own machine and gave us a quick tour of the intricacies of the little video game, which mostly consisted of pushing money in, watching it slide into the guts of the flashing contraption knowing you would probably never see it again, then watching lots of lights bouncing around on the computer screen, accompanied by loud bleeps and blops. All of this frantic electronic activity ended in a single result: either your money was gone and it was then time to put some more money in (or vacate the premises if you didn’t have any left) or you won a little and then it was time to put in some more money anyway, maybe now hoping that the money you had already lost would return and maybe even more money would appear in the form of little numbers on the flashing screen. Maybe then you would finally leave happy, with your pockets full of money, real paper money that smelled like dirt and shit and anger and yet, as tainted as it was, it felt so good in your pocket, maybe then you would have a clear realization that you now knew how to play this game of multicolored lights and electronic bouncing balls, that you had mastered the indescribable skill of winning at a game in which you couldn’t actively participate.
The girl extended her arm and reached for the screen to point out a few subtleties. I looked at her soft brown arm as it stretched out in front of my eyes, only inches from my mouth and nose. It looked so smooth and pure under the red lights, but it also showed the marks of its secret history. Like the coins, it had been swallowed up by the vast machine that surrounded us a long time ago. If I were to get close enough, it would probably smell just like paper money, a receptacle of too many desires used by too many hands.
Maybe it was simply inevitable that you would eventually become what you wanted to possess. By the time you reached that final transformation, you would come to understand its true nature, and maybe even realize that you didn’t really want it to begin with, but it would be too late to turn around and change your mind. Most of the doors of the haunted house opened in only one direction. You would find yourself deep in the guts of the machine and there would be no way out, no escape from the gigantic digestive system into which you had fallen. I wondered if this girl had realized this already. If the light hadn’t been so red and dim, I might have been able to read the answer in her eyes.
While I thought about her placement in the realm of urban and cosmic ecology, the girl was still explaining the game which I had already realized I would not make the effort to fully comprehend. Still, it was only polite to place my attention on her voice, if only to feel the jagged edges of the compounded sine waves as they slid over my ear drums like invisible ribbons of dubious purpose.
One important button, off to my left, was there only to have a waitress come towards you, gliding in her folkloric dress like a long forgotten dream drenched in the sound of drums and marimbas. If you needed more change, a girl would come. If you needed something to drink, a girl would come. If you wanted to cash out, a girl would come. You never needed to stand up for any reason once you were locked into this red and black spaceship. You could spend hour after hour knowing that your needs were being taken care of and that they were actually growing smaller as the hours passed by.
Having finished her preordained speech, the girl left us and I inserted some money into the machine. We saw the dollar bills slide into the slender little opening and the machine snapped into action. We both watched the little green balls bouncing around the screen, bouncing against each other like pinballs but without the real weight of actual silver balls. We had no control over their activity, not even the slight control that came with being able to push the machine left or right with the side of your hand. We could only watch the little colored balls rolling and bouncing and dancing and falling, and each movement came with its own sound and its own sense of computerized suspense or mechanized lust or virtual failure.
Without knowing how or why it had happened, I had suddenly earned ten dollars. I could see it in the little number box that kept track of the money in my account. It was pure contingency, total randomness. The utter lack of skill or of any form of conscious activity on my part gave the game a certain kind of purity. The game was pure naked desire removed from any sense of power, it lacked even a pretense of control. Things simply happened and you stood back and waited to see if these happenings that simply happened would ultimately favor you.
I could see that this is how religions got started, in some red lit alcove where events rolled over long dead men while they vainly tried to hold on to a shred of life with the imaginary weight of their devotion. If you robbed a man of all his power, he would simply invent a secret power of his own, and he would then proceed to convince as many people as possible that this power was real, that it gave him the indescribable ability to make things happen according to his wishes. Maybe the more people he convinced, the more he would believe in it himself. And when enough people believed, when enough followers had been accumulated, he would be content in this knowledge and the game of chance would proceed. It was no use trying to question such invisible powers because they emerged precisely from a lack of control or will or knowledge. Within this gray emptiness there could be no need for proof or evidence. Things were simply true because if they weren’t, then what would the world be? What would it become?
I pressed the button that made a girl come towards us. I had a very small question but I could have easily lived and continued to play without the answer. I simply wanted to see who would come and what they would be like.
A different girl came towards me, gliding smoothly over the thick red carpet from the direction of the bar to my left. She had a similar traditional dress on, much like all the other waitresses, but this one was red with white highlights, tiny little colorful adornments along the hemline and the waistline which seemed to shimmer in the red twilight. Her hair was blonde and her smile was more open, more truthful than the first, her eyes were still full of innocence, which sprawled down her cheeks like invisible tears of hope.
Although she imitated the soft neutral voice of Salvadorean corporate service, she hadn’t quite mastered it. With her, I could actually feel that I was talking to someone and that she was actually talking to me. I felt a kind of instant sympathy for her as she leaned towards me in her shimmering dress.
I imagined that she had only just arrived from some little town in the Salvadorean countryside, some tiny collection of six to ten makeshift huts that stood by a forgotten road full of holes and craters left over from the war. As I looked into her childhood home, I could hear a little transistor radio playing and a hammock swinging in the breeze and the sound of water pouring as her mother washed clothes while talking to her sister in law who was making tortillas. I could see her as a thin pretty teenager, sitting on the front step of her house, picturing the mysterious distant city and the wonders she would find there some day. I could see her climbing into a bus with her head still buzzing with fantasies of cosmopolitan wonders. I could see her arriving in San Salvador, a city of black poison and hungry eyes, and quickly encountering the desperation that roamed through the dirty streets like an epidemic. I could see that this had been the best job she could find, this haven of desire cloaked in a thin veneer of sophistication, and I could see that, unknowingly, she had embarked on a long voyage that would erase every last trace of sincerity from her eyes and body, and it would leave her as blank and sterile as the gambling machines which were now her masters, and her body would soon be used by hardened men like the ones that stood by the entrance, and her heart would turn hard and bitter and cold beyond any chance of recovery. Eventually, when her physical charms were spent and her dreams had been completely forgotten, she would be thrown away like the plastic bottles and pieces of newspaper that floated all over the streets of downtown. Maybe then she would return to her little town in the countryside, hoping to somehow recover what she had lost, that certain quality which she had no words to describe. But she would be surprised to find that the town itself was no longer the same and she would not be able to find that place within her that had once sincerely loved it. At that point everything would be lost, and she would simply disappear into the brush and become another legend, another lost girl that once went to the city and was never seen again.
When she had answered all my questions, she said goodbye as if she didn’t want to and I thanked her profusely, bowing my head in a slight sign of reverence. She smiled once more in response, and her smile resonated in me as I turned back towards the machine which was ready to be fed some more silver signifiers.
I played a few more rounds and won fifteen more dollars. I turned to look at my father and his eyes were wide open with pleasure.
“This is good! This is good! We’re beating them!”
I then realized that we should take our earnings and leave, as we had seen what we needed to see and we had even been paid for it. To stay any further was to risk entrapment and I could see all around me what happened at the later stages of that path.
I cashed out with yet another girl who came towards us. She had been in this red underworld too long and she could barely look up as she handed me the wrinkled dollars. As the money was pressed against my hand, I could feel the raw reality of its dirtiness. Each bill was an empty dream that had passed through so many hands and had been dipped in endless disappointments, each bill carried with it the impossibility of fulfillment along with the promise of satisfaction, and I could feel these contradictory impulses seeping into my hand like a sickness as I squeezed the bills between my fingers. We stepped up and away from our short lived home in the red chamber and we walked towards the small stairway that led to the main entrance.
As we slowly walked over the soft red carpet, a tall thin man came towards us. He was dressed as elegantly as the others, but his black coat was folded over his arm. I took this subtle sign to mean that he had the liberty to decide whether his coat was on or not, which meant that he had a superior status to all the others. He had a long wrinkled brown face and short black hair that was pasted to his skull with shiny Vaseline. His eyes were thin slits of perception that surveyed us with a kind of calm based on cunning, strength and long years of experience. He stood at our side and wished us a good night in a tone that was neither friendly nor aggressive. It was not the professional Salvadorean voice, it was something older, something that seemed to slide out of the mud like giant toads in the middle of the rainy season. I said good night back to him and he nodded and walked away.
We made our way back to the parking lot which was as dark and quiet as we had left it. My father was smiling full of unabashed joy, a stark contrast to the look he had when we first arrived at the casino.
“We went in there and we got some money out of them! They must feel cheated at this point! I feel like we just went in and robbed them! We just walked in there and now we have more money than we did to begin with! We took them! We took them!”
I smiled and agreed. As the little red car pulled back out of the parking spot, I heard him repeating:
“Cheated! They must feel so cheated now!”
I looked up at the big red buildings that had been the home of so many foreign fantasies, of so many moments of terror, of so many unspoken desires. The big red buildings remained the same that they had always been, only the surface form had changed. The desire was now compressed into a single red chamber where desperate people came to drown in waves of electronic fortune. Different from my own fantasies and desires, but not so much.
I then had a single glimpse of understanding. I could suddenly see why my father had feared these places in Las Vegas and in New Orleans, I could see why people here and elsewhere had wanted to close them down. There was only so much desire a building could take before it overflowed and started to infect all the homes around it, and soon enough the air itself would be red and full of naked greed and ambition and there would be no escape from the recurrent glow of pure thick lust that would spread all over a helpless city, a creature of concrete and asphalt unable to defend itself as it slowly sank into a thick crimson cloud from which it would never again emerge.
* * *
We approached Masferrer Park, which was a kind of circular green crown to the long spinal cord that was El Paseo. I could barely see the giant Salvadorean flag waving in the darkness in the center of the circle, it was only a heavier shadow dancing in the midst of other shadows, a nearly forgotten symbol of power and glory that was now only an excuse for middle aged men to get drunk on certain days of the year.
I looked straight ahead of me through the dirty windshield and I saw three young people standing in the middle of the road, precisely along the yellow divider that formed an imaginary wall between the four lanes. There were two girls and one boy, standing unprotected in the darkness of the Salvadorean night. They were staring back at the cars, at the street, at the clusters of lights, at the dark clouds, at everything that we were now leaving behind. They were not moving at all, they simply looked toward the east, all the way down to the dark pit that was downtown after dark, to the end of dreams and the start of nightmares, to the threads of perception that could be seen fluttering over the gray roofs which were now covered in the black ink of the heavy tropical night.
I looked at them and I realized that they were also seeking, like we were, like I was. They sought the nothing that hid behind tall walls, the nothing that stretched over little lawns covered in wet grass, the nothing that danced over electric poles marked with gang symbols, the nothing that reached up from the cracks in the sidewalk to slide along your ankles as you walked, the nothing that pulsed and expanded, swallowing everything that it touched with its formless fingers and its invisible weight, the nothing that could not be found and yet it was there, nude and vulnerable under so many layers of presence, under so many cloaks of existence, under so many masks of belief.
Their eyes met mine and my own met theirs. The search had long been over, but the seeking would never have an end, the seeking was as endless as the vast void beyond the Universe, as empty as the being that hid behind my eyes.
The eyes are open
but the kingdom
has made a strong fortress
a barricade to prevent
all cries for help
all statements of despair.
The confused blurred colors
of a city that outgrew its usefulness
and now slowly sinks
into that hot muddy place
that all corpses must eventually visit.
At every corner
there is a sense of loneliness
a sense of something that could have been
a sense of something that once was
a sense of something
that will never be again.
A thousand memories
Fused into one confused pile
A wet road made of dreams
Fused into one confused pile
A wet road made of dreams
Hopes that couldn’t survive.