- La Boca del Lobo
The echo of a pistol-shot cracked through the neighborhood at dusk, shortly after Maria settled in behind the bar and started counting her cash. The police had orders to shoot stray dogs. There had been a resurgence of rabies in the last couple months. Outside, the dimming equatorial sunlight glowed fuchsia on pale asphalt. Stirred by the gunshot, Ezra looked up from his notepad and, seeing Maria there, straightened, dazed. “Why are you here?” he asked.
She paused, set the money down—pressed the number forty-four into the front of her mind, hoping it would hold—and looked at him. “Because I work here,” she said.
“No, no, I just thought—” but he trailed off there, bewildered, as if it were just too complicated to explain what he’d thought, and she found the gesture, the easy resignation, oddly touching. Ezra was gaunt, self-effacing, and used to cultivate a disheveled look, but it didn’t require cultivation anymore. He’d been in Bolivia for years, selling freelance articles on the country’s revolutions and economic catastrophes to papers in the North.
Recently he’d told her that he used to write optimistic forecasts about the country, but now he wrote that things would continue worsening. “You really are becoming a native.” She’d said it like an accusation, and the two had exchanged a certain, grim smile. Then she knew that he wasn’t really a foreigner at all, not anymore.
But of course he was a foreigner. And like other foreigners who stayed awhile, his loneliness had ripened and then fermented into a kind of spiritual sourness, the evidence of which sat not so much in his face as in his collapsed posture. His thorax seemed to have accordioned in on itself. He came to La Boca by ritual, and, once it has crusted into shape, ritual doesn’t require any reason at all.
But then, this night, he stood and asked for his check and wavered a bit and somehow knocked over one of the stools, which crashed loudly to the floor. He grabbed it and hoisted it back up, set it straight, winded and flushed. It was obvious that he was already drunk, and that he was embarrassed by his early drunkenness. Usually he wasn’t drunk until later. So maybe it had to do with this slight ripple [End Page 438] in the routine, or maybe it was something else, but when he put his money down he veered sharply from the script and asked if she was free tomorrow. “We could get coffee or something,” was what he said.
“I’m working tomorrow,” she replied, doing what she could to maintain the facade of cheerful nonchalance. “Maybe another time?”
Two more gunshots popped nearby. Ezra nodded. “OK then, I better get going.”
“Don’t crawl,” she said. “You don’t want them mistaking you for a dog.”
He laughed steadily, like he was deciding to laugh.
Once he was gone, she returned her attention to the pile of money in front of her. The number had been forty-something. She waited, briefly, for the number to come back to her, and then picked up the cash and started from the top.
As far as Maria was concerned, the best thing about foreigners was that they brought verve to the everyday. Yes, most gringos were, finally, fishing for adventure in Bolivia, and most Bolivian women who dated them were—you wished it wasn’t so, but it was—hungry for a ticket north. Apart from the transactional nature of the transaction, there were worse things—for example, the Bolivian men she knew were, by comparison, deeply beleaguered. The country itself was beleaguered, and spending some time with foreign men helped her feel like she was not participating in the national bleakness. The problem with foreigners, though, even full-fledged expatriates like Ezra, was that, sooner or later, they left. The problem was that even if they really understood Bolivia, they did not understand it, at all. How could they? They were on vacation. The best thing about them was that they brought vacation to a...