The Storm by Tomás González
Translated from the Spanish by Andrea Rosenberg.
This is part of our special feature on Anxiety Culture.
Javier eyed his father’s invulnerable back as the old man, sitting up in the bow, received the morning full on his face.
His father was skinnier and shorter than Javier, and he was wearing a polo shirt that had started out red but had long since faded.
People always told Javier, who was of average height, that he looked a lot like his father and not much like his brother. Mario was blond and slim, like Nora had been before illness had hunched her over or deformed her body or changed her or whatever it had done.
It made no difference to Javier if he resembled his father.
Their relationship wasn’t an easy one, but, unlike Mario, Javier had learned to control his emotions. He always tried to keep a level head to avoid making his mother’s and brother’s lives too complicated. Like Mario, Javier took drugs: cocaine and occasionally speed, since they relieved some of the monotony of coastal life. But he was generally able to keep things under control. At times, like his brother, he’d shut himself up in his bungalow and wouldn’t come out again for several days. But he indulged in these fits of melancholy, isolation, alcohol, drugs, and books only during the low season, when there weren’t any tourists around, since Javier, like his father and brother, was first and foremost a businessman, and a good one too, disciplined: he wasn’t about to squander the high season holing up with a bunch of books, snorting cocaine, and drinking aguardiente.
Javier didn’t believe for a minute that he and Mario were failures like the father always said when he’d been drinking, and sometimes even when he hadn’t. It didn’t bother him that the old man talked that way, but Mario was more sensitive and tended to get his feelings hurt. Sure, they liked doing drugs, Javier wouldn’t deny it, but they could pay for their vices themselves. They didn’t need to depend on anybody else. They ran the hotel restaurant like clockwork and had, just the two of them, without seeking the father’s counsel, bought a little grocery store up on the paved road that brought in good profits.
He pulled the pack of Pielrojas out of his bag, turned his back to the wind, and lit a cigarette. Mario was looking too quiet and concentrated, so Javier jerked the steering arm. Lord knows what this dumb-ass is daydreaming about now, he thought. The Evinrude was practically brand-new and made a steady sound. He liked the way the motorboat leaned back when Mario accelerated. It had been pricey, but expensive things come out cheaper in the long run, Javier thought. They reached the tip of the pincer that closed off the northern end of the gulf and headed toward the first island in the archipelago, near where they were planning to fish.
Out to sea, in the northwest, a mass of gray, almost black clouds had gathered, the distant stone-colored downpour lit by bolts of crisscrossing lightning that swelled and ebbed in intensity but never went out. It was as if in the distance a sort of fire was raging. The rest of the sea, the rest of the universe, was serene and blue.
He poured himself some coffee from a thermos and sipped it as the turquoise water rushed swiftly under the boat. Out at sea, the storm’s display intensified. Nobody really felt like talking, especially not about landscapes, so they didn’t say much, but now and then one of them would turn his head to look at it.
The island appeared on their right, with its coconut palms and thatched huts and camping tents and the campers’ clothing draped on the mangroves’ lower branches, and they kept going till it disappeared again and there was only water everywhere you looked.
The father said “here,” and they dropped anchor.
They started catching fish as soon as the hooks hit the water. They pulled out mojarras, red snappers, large sea bass, and all of them flopped around, rainbow-colored, in the bottom of the boat. Sometimes they stunned them with a stout cudgel; sometimes they didn’t have time to club them because they had to focus on reeling in the other lines. This kind of abundance wasn’t an everyday thing. They were catching blue runners, king mackerel, crevalle jacks. Javier had to stop and take a rest. He smoked a cigarette and then rummaged in his bag for the jar of marijuana and lit his pipe, making sure the smoke didn’t waft over to his father.
I’m the old tourist in bungalow five. It has the best view of the ocean, even if the toilets are stubborn flushers and the window screens don’t do much to keep the mosquitoes out. My eldest granddaughter and her husband brought me here. We old people wake up early, which is why I was up to spot the father through the blinds when he went out with the fishing net and the twin when he lit the Coleman lantern and started getting the boat ready. I went back to bed, not to sleep but to wait for daylight. I heard the motor start up. When you get to my age, the nights seem endless. Even the noise of the waves stretches them out, and you can’t tell anymore if life is lasting for ages or going by in a flash, with seconds that crawl along like slugs and weeks that race over a cliff. But I fell asleep anyway. When I woke up it was daytime and I’d already forgotten about the father and his boys.
We’re the tourists.
I’m the seven-year-old girl from Medellín with the pale blond hair who stepped on a catfish and got stung. A little black boy peed on my foot to get the poison out. My parents and two aunts and I got here yesterday when it was almost nighttime. I woke up in the morning and ran outside to jump into the ocean, and wasn’t even in up to my knees when, bam, I stepped on the fish and its dorsal spine stabbed me in the foot. I never noticed the hotel owner or his sons, but I remember the awful pain and the warmth of the boy’s pee. “Why did you let him pee all over you?” my mother asked when she got down to the beach. “It was just her foot, ma’am,” the boy said. She didn’t even look at him. We were about to go out and find a doctor.
Or I’m the grandmother, born and raised deep in the mountains of Antioquia, who’d never been to the seashore before and whose shoulders and thighs burned in the sun when nobody was paying attention, and who ended up having to be slathered with milk of magnesia in her bungalow to treat the blisters. With all that going on, I don’t know or care what might happen to those men out at sea. What I know is blisters and the feverish deliriums of sun poisoning and the fear of death.
And I’m the drunk tourist who didn’t see a thing because he fell asleep on the beach at ten at night, but who knows only too well what it’s like to wake up at seven in the morning with the sun beating down, sprawled on the sand with a nearly empty bottle in one hand and a belly full of regret.
Everybody gets hunches, and we tourists are no exception, but, truth be told, they’re often wrong. Like maybe I feel like it’s going to rain, and half an hour later the sun comes out. When it comes to that stuff, the locals here look at us like we’re babes in arms: we may see all the same things they do, but we don’t know anything about the sea. Cast a hook and line for me, and watch me get everyone on the boat tangled up in it. So the real fishermen, like the father and the twins, would rather not take us out with them. But we tourists came here to have a good time, so we laugh about that and about lots of other things. We aren’t going to be here on the gulf forever: we’re bank employees, grade-school or graduate students, toddlers, cab drivers, retirees, housewives. Too bad for the people who are stuck here forever, shackled to these waters, this punishment.
We found out Nora’s punishment had started a long while back, when they were living in Montería. The father was never in love with her; he married her only because he didn’t want to leave her alone with the boys. He’s rarely hit her, and he’s always made sure her needs are met, but he’s never bothered hiding his numerous affairs, which he carried out right under Nora’s nose, and definitely never worried about the psychological damage they might cause her and the boys.
A little while back he brought a young woman, Iris, to live with him at Playamar. She came with her kid and everything. If you tried to talk to the father about psychological damage, he’d look at you as if you were speaking Russian, or he might even laugh in your face. Of course, here on the gulf you rarely get a tourist who knows about psychological damage and triggers and talks about these sort of things. Tourism around these parts is more recreational than it is intellectual – it features way more liquor than it does books, at least during the high season. You don’t tend to see bookworms on these beaches; they shrink from the exuberant noise and happiness. A few do come in low season, and when they show up Javier talks to them and listens closely to what they have to say. It’s from them that he learned about the psychological triggers of schizophrenia and other topics that his father, if you put him on the spot, would probably judge “a crock of nonsense.”
Nothing escapes our notice, not even things that happen when we’re not around. We always end up hearing about them from somebody who was there, a local from these parts. Nothing stays hidden from us for long – not even what was or wasn’t going to happen in that motorboat out on the water once the island was lost from view and they dropped anchor. Not even what was going to happen afterward, on their way back.
I’m the sociable guy who somehow ended up alone in life at fifty-seven – though I do have a couple of cousins in Remedios – and spend my days walking up and down the beach, chatting with everyone and no one. In Medellín I rent a room from two old ladies near the Plazuela de San Ignacio; they like me a lot, and I like them. I eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner with three other retirees. I used to work at Siemens, and the first thing I tell people I meet here on the coast – and I meet a lot of people, with all my walking and chatting – is that I used to work at Siemens.
And I ask things.
“So the islands are off that direction?”
“That direction, yes sir,” the fisherman replies, standing next to his boat. He’s black. Laconic. Disdainful. He’s not about to tell some tourist that he hasn’t gone out fishing today because he’s afraid of rough seas.
“There’s really good fishing out there, they tell me.”
“Are they far?”
“A little far,” the fisherman says, and then he warms up a bit and decides to give me the information. “About two hours in a good boat. Three hours in mine.”
Worn out from having to make such an effort with the conversation, he goes off to have an ice-cold beer in a bar on one of the streets leading to the park, and this time he has better luck with the woman behind the counter. He’s the affable lone tourist. He’s in the largest town along the gulf shore, Tolú, which some people say is a contraction of Todoluz – full of light – twenty minutes by taxi from the Hotel Playamar, where he’s staying. And so the tourist and the woman talk happily about some topic, any topic, it doesn’t matter what.
Or I’m the forty-year-old man, father of three little girls with light-colored eyes, ten, nine, and six years old, and the owner of a Toyota SUV that gets a lot of admiring looks here at the beach, from everybody, whether they know anything about cars or not. He’s an experienced businessman, this tourist. He’s got capital and claims to be looking to buy a few businesses or properties along the seafront. The night before, he and the father sat talking in one of the hotel’s pretty little palm-thatched shelters on the beach, eating hunks of fried pork with fried plantain and corn arepas and drinking aguardiente. The father told the experienced businessman he had two good-for-nothing sons. If it weren’t for them, he said, he wouldn’t sell – he’d just asked a hundred million pesos for a property worth maybe forty – but he was tired of running the business all by himself, and it was a good business. The father rattled off some profit figures. According to his numbers, he brought in an impressive amount during the high season. The father said sometimes as many as four buses would arrive from Medellín at one time, all packed with tourists, and he didn’t have enough space for everybody, so he’d put up to eight people in one room. And since the price per person was the same either way, well, you do the math. Plus the restaurant. Plus drinks.
Humility isn’t one of the father’s flaws, and as they kept drinking, Hotel Playamar gradually was transformed into a monument to his genius as a businessman.
He talks a lot when he’s drinking, the father does, a lot. It drives Mario, who’s quiet and often overhears him saying how the sons are a couple of losers, absolutely crazy. By now the guest was drunk too, though you couldn’t tell, since he was good at holding his liquor and seemed sincerely impressed. He’s a hypocrite, of course, this tourist is. He doesn’t know the first thing about sincerity, and he knew full well the property wasn’t worth even half what the father was asking. He knew the old man was caught up in delusions of grandeur, common among the entrepreneurial set, and the tourist wasn’t criticizing that fervor at all. He took it for granted, considered it par for the course in a good businessman. The tourist didn’t have the slightest intention of buying property, even though he had the money, and the father knew full well the other man had no intention of buying anything, even if he could. But the two of them were engaged in a sort of symbiosis: the tourist let the father indulge in delusions of commercial grandeur and lavish praise of the gulf; the tourist, for his part, got to enjoy being treated like someone special, not one of those goobers in terry-cloth shorts who showed up on the buses from Medellín, but a first-class A-plus VIP who’d cruised up with his family in the most gawked-at and coveted SUV around.
Whenever the father talks about the gulf, he waxes poetic and extols the beauty of the sunsets and the color of the sea. For some reason that really pisses Mario off, really makes him want to kill him. The father also talks about how peaceful life is there, though just then music blaring from a passing truck will almost drown out his remark and even the sound of the waves. And he sings the praises of the unsullied environment, though the twin knows full well – and doesn’t actually care – what they do with the sewage at the hotel.
When Mario hears his father talking with the tourist, he wishes a lightning bolt would flash down from the night sky and strike the two of them. The guest, for his part, when the father starts in again on what a burden the twins are, muses that a man shouldn’t speak ill of his children, especially when they’re right there listening, but he doesn’t say anything. Everybody’s got to raise his kids his own way. He’d rather cut out his own tongue than speak ill of his daughters, whom he adores, just as he adores his wife, and all of them adore him back. To each his own, he thinks, not without a certain alcoholic melancholy, as he sees Mario appear in the light of the snack hut to serve a little boy and then head back out into the shadows.
Tomás González was born in 1950 in Medellín, Colombia. He studied philosophy before becoming a barman in a Bogotá nightclub, whose owner published Primero estaba el mar (In the Beginning Was the Sea), his first novel, in 1983. González has lived in Miami and New York, where he wrote much of his work while making a living as a translator. After twenty years in the US, he returned to Colombia, where he now lives. His books have been translated into six languages. His books Temporal (The Storm), La luz dificil, Niebla al mediodia, El lejano amor de los extrañosare, and Abraham entre bandidos are published in Spanish by Alfaguara.
Andrea Rosenberg is a translator from the Spanish and Portuguese and an editor of the Buenos Aires Review. Among her recent and forthcoming full-length translations are Inês Pedrosa’s In Your Hands (AmazonCrossing 2018), Aura Xilonen’s The Gringo Champion (Europa Editions 2016), Juan Gómez Bárcena’s The Sky over Lima (Houghton Mifflin 2016), and David Jiménez’s Children of the Monsoon (Autumn Hill Books 2014).
This excerpt from The Storm is published by permission of Archipelago Books.
Published on July 2, 2018.