Affront


Para qué quiero vida sin honra.
Si hasta ‘onde tuve aposté.

“Why would I want a life without honor.
If I bet all I ever had.”
– A. Esparza Oteo

A highway can be like the sea. The sun beating against your face, a breeze that cleans your respiratory system’s pipes, your hands clinging to the rails of the steel deck, a putrid smell rising from the bilge. Drake Horowitz believed this for some time without being able to prove it: riding outside the cabin was forbidden when traveling at high speeds. So he stayed in his seat, studying the results of the American League in the sports section of the Baltimore Sun and letting his resentment build. He barely paid attention to the endless chatter between Verrazano and the driver, who exchanged ideas, comments, and insults while slightly leaning forward to get a clear view of each other: as the greenest one on the job, he had to sit in the middle of the Outrageous Fortune’s bench seat.

The idea of christening the garbage truck came from a photograph in a National Geographic magazine salvaged from a black plastic bag. Everything made its way to the ship that way, as if following the drift of a secret tide. As he lifted the bag, fat Verrazano felt the lump of printed material. He held the bag in his fist and lifted it up and down, weighing it for a moment with squinted eyes and pursed lips. Then he set it on the floor, squatted, and told his partner as he felt the bag’s contents, “These sons of bitches think they can fool a man who’s been picking up trash for fifteen years.” His expert olfactory sense pondered the smells that emanated from the bag every time he squeezed it. “They’re magazines,” he went on, “recent issues in good condition; perfectly recyclable.” He didn’t throw the bag into the compactor. On the way back to the waste collection plant, he undid the bundle and saw that it held National Geographic magazines and catalogues. No pornography. The driver, who within the company’s ranks was captain of their ship, suggested that they report the tenant: not for violating recycling regulations, just for being a pain in the ass. “It’s the white man’s goddam hypocrisy,” he concluded in a thick, low, and cavernous voice. Verrazano let out a sigh of boredom and let the bag tumble to the back of the cabin. Drake, having finished the sports section, reached down for one of the magazines and began to thumb through it. He showed them the photo during lunch. They had stopped in a park and were at a picnic table sharing a parcel of dried fish and crackers. “Look,” he said, “south of the Rio Grande people name their trucks.” On the cover was a dump truck with, “No me olvides,” written on the back bumper in red letters. The next day, before arriving at the neighborhood where they picked up trash, he proposed that they write “Outrageous Fortune” on the stern of the truck. Verrazano immediately agreed. He liked the idea of personalizing his workplace: his own car bore embellishments that made it unique, and in his opinion, elegant. The captain didn’t even bother to turn and look at them while they talked it over. Drake pointed out that they could add a flag, “a black one,” he said, which Verrazano thought was odd but also manly. It was weeks before they persuaded the old man into letting them paint the name on; he ended up acquiescing on the condition that they forego the flag: regulations prohibited hanging anything from the truck’s exterior. The fat man made one final attempt and reminded him that the flag would be black. “Just like your ass,” he noted. The captain told him that if he didn’t shut up he’d take the rosary he’d insisted on hanging from the rearview mirror during their first trip together and throw it out the window.

Contrary to popular superstition, the day arrived without any omens: the day that Drake Horowitz verified for himself that a highway can be like the sea and a garbage truck like a ship. The previous night he’d gone to a minor league game with his brother and nephews, who came by the plant early to pick him up. He didn’t call his wife to tell her he’d be home late; during the last few weeks the most minor of disagreements would incite in her an anger of uncontrollable volume that often had to be suppressed with a slapping, and he wasn’t the type to hit women. In the car his nephews asked for their cousin, and Drake unenthusiastically shrugged his shoulders and said he’d preferred to stay home, with his mother. His brother, aware of the personal hell he was going through, patted him on the back before starting the car. They didn’t say anything during the drive, with the kids arguing from time to time and their father shouting to shut them up whenever he found them too irritating. During the game they drank to the point of worrying the eldest son, who tried everything, even crying, to stop them. When the sale of beer ended at the top of the eighth inning, they drove to a biker bar just off the highway. The idea was to buy a case and drink it in Drake’s apartment – the kids could settle in with their cousin -, but they found the place so pleasant and the return to the city so long that they decided to stay. After the first glass of bourbon the brother went out to give his kids a small dish of peanuts and the car keys, in case they wanted to listen to the radio. Drake’s memories ended a little while later.

He woke up alone, covered in sweat, and guilt-free, stretched across one of the benches of his neighborhood’s basketball court. He rubbed his face and looked at his watch. It was almost five in the morning. The night had hardly made the weather any cooler. He quickened his pace, thinking the heat would soon be oppressive; he had just over half an hour to shower and eat something before Verrazano honked his horn outside of his building.

The christening of the Outrageous Fortune was one more harmless peculiarity, just another among the many generated by the infinite monotony of working as a garbage man. The captain felt that officially recognizing the name chosen for his galleon by the afflicted Horowitz couldn’t do any harm. The captain himself used it to refer to the ship after he accepted the name on the rear bumper. He’d previously noticed that agreeing to Drake’s whims caused Drake to work better. His outlandishness was always modest and tolerable: eating jerky and crackers on days it was his turn to bring lunch; getting accustomed to using certain terms: hatch for door, quarterdeck for cabin, tiller for steering wheel, binnacle for glove compartment. They were minor obsessions, at least compared to Verrazano, whose lunacies made him as likely to provoke a police officer as he was to kick over a house’s trash cans when he thought their waste was poorly bagged.

Drake had always seen the garbage truck as something like a ship, but this tendency had gotten worse over the year ever since that autumn morning when the waves washed up a box of books before them. He was tying the remnants of a piece of furniture onto the upper deck when Verrazano fell still, his hands on his waist and an incredulous expression on his face. “Guess what?” he yelled. Drake, occupied as he was with his task, hardly paid attention. “This has to violate all waste disposal regulations in the United States; look at this, Horowitz. Books, and in an open cardboard box; I can’t believe it.” Coming down the stern’s ladder, Drake suggested that he put them in the compactor and forget about them. “Impossible,” he responded. “Just leave them in the box and move on.” “It’s a crime,” he yelled. “Why?” “What do you mean why? It’s perfectly recyclable paper and they’re books; inner city kids lack proper schools while the suburbs’ rich throw books out.” “Well then, take them to the library or file a claim against this address for failing to recycle.” The fat man stammered, said he would do exactly that, and put the books in the cabin. After lunch – the fat man’s wife had prepared a glorious lasagna for them – relaxed and bored by the length of the return trip back to the plant, he began to look through the box’s contents. He leafed through two or three books. He stopped at one. “Look at this,” he said, showing it to Horowitz. “What is up with this? Song to Myself. That much pride can’t be good for children.” He took the volume by the binding and flung it out the window. The other two laughed. He continued rummaging. “Please,” he said after a short while, “look at this.” He was showing them a copy of Junkie. “This isn’t right,” and he repeated the antics. This time the book hit a mailbox. “Ah, A Doll’s House, about hookers,” and he threw it gracefully, as if it were a frisbee. Then he barked, “Mexico City Blues; I want nothing to do with beaners.” “I’ll throw that one away,” said the captain. “No way,” Verrazano replied, “because here’s one especially for you,” and handed him Heart of Darkness. “And this one’s for Horowitz: Drake in the Pirates’ Era.” By the time they arrived at the plant all the books had ended up on the street except for the one about pirates, which Drake began to read that very night. Things at home were still good then: neither he nor his wife could drink that much if for a couple of weeks he stayed home every day to read for an hour or two.

During the summer the highway was like the sea, that would have been impossible. Verrazano found it strange that Horowitz, with the face of a castaway, would already be waiting for him on the stairs outside his building. It was even stranger that Drake hadn’t reacted when Verrazano stopped his white Galaxy right in his face: it wasn’t the kind of car that went unnoticed. With great effort, he had to roll down the passenger window and whistle loudly to get his attention. Drake greeted him and clumsily stood up, like a diver moving slowly and carefully across the ocean floor. He was wearing the same clothes as yesterday. The fat man watched from inside as he reluctantly opened the rear door and dropped a canvas duffel bag on the seat, a bag much larger than the one he normally carried. The seat’s thick, padded velvet cover hardly muffled the dull and metallic sound of the bag’s contents. “Are you playing ball after work?” Verrazano asked. “No,” said Horowitz. He insisted, “You’re bringing a bat, aren’t you?” “And a shotgun.” “Right.” Once they were out of the city, they randomly chose, as they did every day, a street to steal the newspaper from. “We’re lucky,” said the fat one as he made out the blue bag of the New York Times in the front yard of a prefab mansion. When they pulled off the highway to buy coffee at a gas station convenience store, Drake told Verrazano what had happened to him.

When he returned to his apartment after spending the night, or part of it, at the neighborhood basketball court, he was still on the tranquil mezzanine that separates being inebriated from being hungover. In that uncoordinated state, it took him some time to get his keys out of the pocket of his jeans. He had a brief spell of dizziness while he picked out the correct key, and so he rested his head against the door, which gave way as he leaned into it. Although at that instant he knew his wife had left him, he preferred to think that the door had been left open out of carelessness and even planned to tell her off as soon as she woke up to prepare the kid’s breakfast. He went directly into the kitchen and, still with nocturnal stealth, drank a glass of milk. As he closed the refrigerator door he saw the Post-it, on which the most laconic of messages had been scribbled: I left. He took the note and read it a few more times, surprised that he didn’t feel anything. Before going in the bathroom he made sure she hadn’t left him his son, because he wouldn’t have known what to do with him.

Feeling alone gave him a sense of relief. After turning on the hot water, he sat on the toilet and waited for the room to fill with steam before getting in the shower; he’d always thought that breathing steam had some sort of healing effect. He felt the urge to piss. He stood up, lifted the lid of the toilet, and saw a pair of condoms floating in the bowl. A burning wave split from his lower back and its shock enveloped him completely. He kicked chairs, knocked tables over, smashed plates. He found his bathrobe on the bedroom floor next to the contraceptives’ metallic wrappers; from the headboard hung a pair of briefs that weren’t his. He grabbed the briefs intending to light them on fire, and as he did so, Drake noticed that they belonged to a man much larger than he was. He dropped them and sat on the bed, his temples throbbing, his mind in transit from ire to self-pity. He was rubbing his face when he noticed the smell. It wasn’t long before, in precisely the center of the bed, he discovered a shit so big that it could not have been produced by a woman.

Verrazano’s reaction to the story was surprisingly calm and equanimous. “You’re saying he took a shit on your bed?” Horowitz nodded assent. “He must be Arab, or Chinese.” “Why?” “A Christian wouldn’t do that; besides, he left his briefs. Real men wear boxers.” They remained silent, Drake sinking into his seat under the weight of the hangover that was beginning to take on oceanic proportions, and the other steering with his left hand, his right hand on his chin. Once on the side road leading to the plant, the fat man said with the air of someone who has finally solved an enigma: “And you brought the shotgun to kill her in case we come across them.” Horowitz shrugged. “I’d do the same, brother,” he concluded and gently patted the back of his companion’s neck. Drake was so miserable that the gesture felt comforting.

It wasn’t even 6:30am and it was already hot. The hazy sunlight, blurred by the humidity and reflected off the concrete floor of the plant’s parking lot, entered directly into the softest and most sensitive part of Drake’s brain. The sweat was irritating as it slipped down his unshaven cheeks. In order to look at his watch, he had to use one hand to stop the other from shaking. With ten minutes left until they set off, he walked all the way to the bathroom. He vomited the coffee and vigorously washed his face. He was looking at himself in the mirror when he remembered that his brother had foreseen the storm. It was a Sunday afternoon and they’d met up in Drake’s apartment for lunch and to watch a World Series game. They had a beer while they grilled hotdogs on the deck. The women were in the kitchen, busy with the salad; the children, taking advantage of the fact that the pre-game show hadn’t yet begun, played on a more or less outdated video game console that Drake had found days earlier in a trash can of a well-to-do suburb. The Horowitz brothers were happy and recalled childhood episodes they’d lived in that neighborhood, the same one that Drake, the younger sibling, still couldn’t move out of. Everything was so pleasant – the fresh breeze, the bright sky, the clear light – that Drake’s tongue slipped and spoke about how he’d found his name’s origin in an English admiral of mixed renown. He stepped into the apartment and returned with the biography of Sir Francis Drake and a telescope, possibly the only object in his house that had actually been purchased. The older brother ignored the hotdogs a moment to extend the telescope’s lens and peer at the building across the street. As he did so, Drake asked if their father might have thought of the pirate when choosing his name. His brother retracted the lens and glanced at the book’s cover. His attention back on the grill, he opined that he’d never heard of any Polish sailors and so it was most likely that their father had actually wanted to call him Derek. “He was always so drunk and so dumb,” he concluded, “that surely he made a mistake on your birth certificate.” A few hours later, when they were alone in front of the TV, the women and children in the park, the older brother confided that while he didn’t want to meddle in anyone else’s business, he’d noticed that his sister-in-law was acting strangely, as if she were hiding something. “What?” Drake asked, alarmed. “I don’t know,” he responded, “maybe she’s afraid of telling you she’s pregnant again or maybe she’s looking for a job.” The younger brother shrugged. The older brother went into the kitchen for a couple of beers during the commercial break. When he returned, he sat on the couch, handed a beer to Drake, and told him in the most casual tone he could fake, “And, frankly, this thing about pirates is weird. It seems like an escape, like the Batman costume you refused to take off after Dad left. Try to find another job, a normal one where you don’t have to sit all day in between two morons.”

Drake left the bathroom and put his overalls on in the changing room. He felt weighed down by the destiny in his bag as he crossed the parking lot. The captain was already aboard the truck, the engine running. Verrazano stood beside the open door, smiling and waiting for him. “Cheer up, Horowitz,” he told him, “we’ve got a long, hot day ahead of us.” He felt the plastic lining of the forecastle’s seat already hot against his bottom. The fat man climbed aboard and shut the hatch. Drake sunk an arm into his bag and took out the telescope; he extended it, looked ahead, and murmured, “Anchors aweigh.”

The driver shifted into first gear and set off, pleased that despite the fresh tragedy that Verrazano had summarized for him, operations on the Outrageous Fortune were proceeding as usual. The captain decided to risk a joke in order to ease the tension inside the forecastle. He thought that the unfortunate Horowitz needed to understand that dumping and being dumped by women is simply a part of life for anyone devoting time to a ship’s crew. The plant’s gates were hardly out of sight when the captain tried to break the ice. He said in his deepest voice, “So it turns out your wife got tired of good Polish sausages and wanted the fig of a Bedouin.” Verrazano couldn’t help himself and burst into laughter. Drake didn’t react, and so the captain attacked Verrazano to make clear that he was on Drake’s side, “I don’t know what you’re laughing about, fat ass. My whore of a wife says Italians have it olive-sized.” The response was immediate, and the squabble the same as always. Horowitz listened as if from the other side of a wall made of water. He didn’t have the energy for anything, so he shut his eyes, hoping to get some sleep before starting his daily dance with the trash cans. Soon afterwards, from the obscure limbo of his half-sleep, he heard the captain who, thinking him sound asleep, was reveling in the odd detail of the shit on his bed. He said with gravity, “How old could the boy be?” “About 3 years old,” replied the fat one. “I wonder,” continued the old man, “had he been present while the lover exerted himself, how much he would have clapped after that turd emerged.”

Consumed by rage, Drake opened his eyes. He saw fear on the captain’s face before covering it completely with his palm and slamming the man’s head against the window. Horowitz, without letting up on the driver, grabbed the steering wheel with his right hand and took the vessel off its course. He pulled the emergency brake and once he felt all movement halt, he resumed the thrashing until the window was covered in blood. Perplexed, Verrazano watched him; it was maybe the first time Drake surprised Verrazano. Drake told him, “This is a mutiny; whose side are you on?” His hand was still pressing down on the captain’s face while his right one felt around for the bag to take out the shotgun. The fat man didn’t need to think much, “On the side of the people,” and himself withdrew the weapon and pointed it at the old man. He said, “I’m sorry, cap’n, but there are new rules.”

They gagged him with electrical tape and used wire to tie his hands and feet. The old man didn’t put up the slightest fight. With evident pleasure, Horowitz placed him in the middle seat and took over the helm. They hadn’t gone far when Verrazano asked what they were going to do with him. “We’re going to abandon him on an island.” “Well then, we need to get going before traffic picks up.” They took the next u-turn on the left. Drake stopped the truck in the middle of the road and they both carried the old man to some bushes. “I’ll let the police know that you’re here,” the fat man promised the deposed captain once he was certain Horowitz couldn’t hear. Before setting off again, Drake produced a black flag from his bag and attached two of its four corners to the Outrageous Fortune’s antenna.

The rest was degradation and barbarism: pursuing and boarding other vessels, assaulting, kidnapping; the siege and burning of a liquor store. The bombardment of three parked mini-vans drew so much attention that for weeks ladies in the metropolitan area trembled at the mere sound of a garbage truck. All in the hysterical span of a few hours. By midday they were already enclosed by their own havoc.

With Verrazano behind the wheel, they went northbound on a scarcely trafficked road and docked the ship at the first bend they came across. Drake played the only hand he was willing to bet on and said, “You’ll spend the rest of your life in jail after what we’ve done today.” He unfolded the navigation chart and pointed to a marsh in the Chesapeake Bay. “You can only get there by back roads,” he continued, “so it’s likely we’ll reach it before they find us. There’s a large, abandoned marina that extends far into the sea. My father took us fishing there a few times.” The fat one expressed his hesitance, “I have friends in jail, and I’m sure that in jail I could make more friends. Besides, I promised the captain that I’d let people know which island we left him on.” Drake shrugged. His partner said apologetically, “There’s nothing to do, Horowitz, my solidarity with your pain has its limits.” “Well then, help me navigate that far.” “With pleasure.” Without another word, Drake left the ship deck and climbed the ladder up the stern. After Drake maneuvered his exit from the cabin, fat Verrazano advanced northeastwards at full speed ahead. For Drake, the highway was like the clean and open sea. Hands firm around the deck’s rails, he felt the sun on his face, the breeze filling his chest, the putrid smell permeating the bilge.


By Álvaro Enrigue
translated from the original Spanish, by Ricardo López

 
Ricardo López is an undergraduate student of Spanish and Portuguese Languages at Princeton University. Álvaro Enrigue (1969-) is a Mexican writer and critic. He is considered one of the most innovative Mexican writers of his generation, and is currently a writer in residence at the New York Public Library. “Affront” appears with permission of Dalkey Archive Press. A complete translation of Álvaro Enrigue’s Hipotermia will be published next year by Dalkey Archive Press.
 

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