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The Misadventures of Argo Buckner
by John Tarleton
Chapter I: A Tough Night
When Argo Buckner was robbed for the third time while sleeping one night in an abandoned lot on the dimly-lit streets of Puerto Esperanza, he never imagined that his life would sink much, much lower four years later when he found himself travelling alone through West Africa.
On that unlucky morning he awoke at dawn, as was his custom in the Republic of Gran Dolores, when the sun first flashed over the horizon of the tepid Bay of Esperanza. He rolled over to reach for his rupsack only to notice that it was missing. The thieves had taken everything except his juggling clubs, his passport which he kept in the front pocket of his sliced and tattered trousers and the olive green army blanket which he had tightly wrapped around himself. A weary groan involuntarily leapt out of his throat. After waiting five months at the end of a continent for a northbound banana boat, he was too indifferent to be surprised or angered by anything that happened on the streets of Puerto Esperanza.
Seagulls circled overhead on the warm breeze as he grabbed his remaining possessions and made his way across a lot covered with weeds, shards of broken glass, discarded condoms and empty glue bottles. Clusters of ragged, barefoot children were curled up in the doorways of closed storefronts along Avenida Simon Bolivar. A lone, ancient street vendor moved slowly down one side of the desolate street. In the distance the Knossos II, an air-conditioned cruise ship, was anchored just offshore with its cargo of several dozen spirited young missionaries.
"Helados, helados," the street vendor called out to no one in particular. "A peso, a peso."
The withered old man wore frayed sandals and a few scraggly white whiskers sprouted at the point of his chin. He disappeared around the corner, the rattle of his cart drowned out by the ravenous, impatient screeching of the gulls.
The stalls around the Plaza Central were always the first to open in the morning. Argo plopped down in his regular seat in the back corner of Comedor Buena Suerte. He brushed his long, bedraggled blond hair out of his face and scratched his beard as he mulled over his situation. Ham and eggs were sizzling on the large black grill behind the counter.
"Oh amigo, you look like you had a tough night."
It was Horacio, a stout, cheerful, middle-aged father of 8 who was convinced that he was going to die a very rich man. He worked at the grill from dawn until dusk. In the evenings, he worked on commission selling stolen sewing machines from door-to-door for his brother-in-law, a police officer.
"Everything was fine," Argo said, "until I woke up."
He still had 20 pesos in his pockets and he treated himself to a roll to go with his regular breakfast of strong black coffee. Horacio hustled around the corner of the counter and placed four breakfast platters in front of a party of sailors who ate quickly and departed.
"Don't worry amigo, you'll eventually get out of here," Horacio said, trying unsuccessfully to sound cheerful. "I've dreamt of going to El Norte all of my 42 years and I still haven't given up hope."
Argo felt lucky to still have his juggling clubs. He guessed that the thieves were young glue sniffers who shrewdly anticipated that if they took his juggling gear, he would be unable to continue entertaining them from where he juggled every day in the Plaza Central. Horacio placed a cup of steaming black coffee and a crumbly sweet roll in front of Argo. No more new customers had come into Comedor Buena Suerte and there was a brief lull in the busy day. Horacio scratched his thinning, dark black hair and asked a question that had been ripening in his mind for weeks.
"By the way amigo, how did you end up in a dump like this?"
CHAPTER II: Horacio Gomez: Aspiring Missionary
Like most of the people Argo met in his journey through Latin America, Horacio Gomez couldn't fathom why he had gone through so much trouble to come south when so many others were trying desperately to get to El Norte, where the money is. Argo could not come up with an answer in his mind that would make sense to anyone but himself.
Argo had first hitchhiked through Gran Dolores, a calamitous, bloodstained land of tropical sea breezes, inpenetrable jungle, scorching desert and snow-capped mountain ranges, seven months earlier. He was travelling a thousand miles further to the south, enroute to meeting up on a pre-arranged date with some old college chums. Afterwards, the others flew back to their everyday lives in the United States and Europe, content with having seen South America. Argo lingered behind, wandering from village to village with a small circus, before breaking away to resume his northward trek.
Argo befriended Horacio after several months of surviving on what he could earn from his juggling performances in the Plaza Central, near the walled entrance to Old Puerto Esperanza. At once elegant and squalid, Puerto Esperanza was a decadent, sadly cheerful city that lay at the swampy mouth of a long river that flowed down from the distant mountains. It was founded in the 1500s by gold-hungry Spanish conquistadors. It had since witnessed one calamity after another amidst its languid sea breezes: British pirates, waves of cholera epidemics, an endless series of catastrophic civil wars and most recently a deluge of powdered cocained for the well-to-do and industrial paint or glue for the streetkids.
Presently, it was the home of fair-skinned aristocrats who lived in colonial-era mansions that crouched behind high, whitewashed walls, mestizos like Horacio who were struggling to get ahead, mulattos who dwelled in shacks far back in the mangrove swamps, roving street gangs (the most notorious of which was the police) and legions of hapless travellers like Argo who found themselves stranded at the end of a continent. Luckily for Argo, he had worked out a deal with Horacio where he received a free lunch in return for English lessons during the slow, mid-afternoon siesta time.
"Oh amigo, you must learn me perfect Englees for when I go to the United States," Horacio said, when he first proposed the deal.
A green-robed statuette of a tenderly expressive Virgin Mary watched over Horacio's cramped, three-table comedor. Below the statuette, on a rusty nail, there hung an outdated calendar featuring topless blondes with large, melony breasts who were sprawled provacatively across the elongated hoods of bright red sports cars. The recent arrival of the Knossos II had become a source of new inspiration for Horacio. On this morning soaring, downhome Gospel music blared in the tiny comedor instead of the usual sensual assortment of cumbias, salsa and merengue.
Horacio had bought the tapes and a bilingual Bible from street kids for five pesos. He watched as Argo finished his last sip of coffee. Seeing that no answer was forthcoming to his original question, he posed a second question that had been ripening in his mind. He pressed the Bible to his heart as he did so.
"Argo, do you think it ees possible that I can become a meeshonary to the First World?"
"You'll have to find an identical twin if you want to become a Mormon. Their missionaries only travel in twos."
Horacio's brow furrowed. Until then, he hadn't even thought of becoming a Mormon.
"Be serious Argo. These people on the boat are from a different secta."
Horacio's thinking had changed 180% since the well-scrubbed young missionaries had poured onto the streets of Puerto Esperanza a couple of weeks before. He had been perplexed by his first brief encounter with a pair of eager missionaries; a red-haired Belgian woman and a broad-shouldered American man with a crewcut who was 10 years older than most of his peers.
"No saints and no virgins," Horacio had said to Argo later that same day, repeating what they had emphatically told him. "Do you think they believe in God?"
But after boarding the Knossos II on Visitors' Day the following Sunday, Horacio had returned a changed man. He talked constantly of the air-conditioned lounge with its Ping-Pong and billiard tables, color televisions mounted in all four corners of the room and a soda pop machine that spoke in perfect English when it made change for the missionaries.
"Tank you very much. You have 25 cents in change," he giggled to himself for days afterward.
Horacio had hardly noticed the small, carpeted chapel which was spartan in comparison. It had neither crucifixes, nor statues of compassionate, doe-eyed virgins nor long-suffering saints nor stained-glass Stations of the Cross.
"That's all idolatry," the same broad-shouldered American man was explaining again to other curious visitors. "It's not of God."
Horacio shrugged his shoulders and wondered back to the lounge. The missionaries had bestowed a shimmering, new vision of life upon him. It was more wondrous than he had imagined. And he was determined to attain it.
Now, three spindly street kids had clustered at the comedor's entrance. The plaza was starting to bustle with life. The three boys stared inside with glazed eyes. None of them was more than 10 years-old. The tip of the youngest one's nose was smudged with shoe polish. A dark blue and white pickup truck with four heavily armed police officers riding in back slowly circled the plaza, passing in front of the cathedral's closed, heavy wooden doors. The oldest boy shouted something and the streetkids scattered in different directions, vanishing as suddenly as they had appeared.
"Just think," Horacio continued, his Bible still in hand, "if I become First World meeshonary, I can have all those good things too. And when I return from serving my Gott, I will bring back many presents for my wife Conchita, for Horaciocito and all his brothers and sisters."
Horacio was too immersed in his fantasy to notice the four policemen who had hopped out of the back of the truck and were walking through the entrance of Comedor Buena Suerte.
CHAPTER III: The Police Captain's Offer
"Pinche cunado!" The police captain called out. "Que Onda?"
Horacio wheeled around in surprise. He smiled uneasily when he saw it was his brother-in-law. Argo had meant to excuse himself, but now found he was listening along as they spoke in rapid-fire Spanish.
Horacio's brother-in-law was a portly man who wore opaque sunglasses and had two gold-capped front teeth. Besides the sub-machine gun that was strapped across his chest, he had a .357 magnum in the holster that sagged from his waist. Two other policemen stood behind the captain, tense and erect, as if poised for violence, while the third one leaned against the counter, gazing at the calendar.
Argo recognized the man leaning against the counter. He had the same build as the captain but the weary features of a man who doesn't get enough sleep. He was the cop who had typed up Argo's police report several months before when Argo naively went to the police station after the first time he was robbed. The policeman had shrugged his shoulders and slowly completed a brief one-page report laden with spelling errors, which detailed the time and the place of the crime and the missing items. He charged a two-dollar "donation" for his efforts and shrugged his shoulders again as if to say "How would I know?" when Argo asked what he should do next.
Horacio's brother-in-law was a mercurial man who could be at once cruel and affable; routinely crude and obscene, yet occasionally courteous to the point of being chivalrous. It was 8 o'clock in the morning and the T-shirt under his police uniform was soaked with sweat. Confused for a moment, he looked around and then playfully jabbed Horacio on the chest with his short, pudgy index finger.
"Cunado, where did you get that shitty Gringo music?"
Horacio started to explain about Knossos II but was cut off.
"Fuck it. They're all whores or sons of whores. They don't even believe in the Blessed Virgin."
The police captain was indifferent to the point of being hostile to foreigners, though he begrudgingly admired the images of wealth and power that were beamed from the Rich World into the contraband color TV that sat in the center of his small, cramped house, beneath a framed portrait of the Virgin. A policeman's lot in Gran Dolores wasn't an easy one. They were respected by no one and the target of everyone. When they weren't being ambushed by guerrillas that roamed the countryside, they were targeted by drug traffikers in the big cities. The rich hired private security firms to guard their properties and the poor settled scores among themselves. The captain's salary was 50 dollars a week (the drug traffikers going bounty on a policeman's head) and his subordinates earned as little as 30 dollars per week. So, they had to be creative in supplementing their incomes.
Small change could be made from collecting traffic fines on the spot. There was better money to be made in providing "protection" for local businesses and fencing the stolen goods of those who lacked the foresight to take out such an insurance policy. The rising number of street kids opened up lucrative new possibilities. Beggary was bad for business, and harried merchants offered bounties that made it possible for moonlighting cops to earn a week's wage with a couple hours of off-duty work.
The captain prided himself on never having stooped so low. He only insisted that he and his superiors get their proper cut for not opening the kind of investigations that the Gringo human rights organizations and occasionally bold newspaper publishers clamored for periodically.
Horacio and his brother-in-law had turned their backs to Argo and were talking business in hushed tones. Argo's thoughts drifted off to the streetkids who watched him juggle in the afternoons. The two young police officers had relaxed and were now flipping through the calendar with their easygoing colleague. One of them let out a long whistle at the sight of Miss July.
Suddenly, the police captain spun around and strode over to where Argo was sitting. Horacio trailed behind him.
"Listen up Gringo," the police captain said. He had an easy, confident smile and didn't bother to slow down his Spanish to accomodate Argo. "We may be able to help get you out of this country."
Argo wondered again why he had not left earlier. Horacio nodded knowingly, as if to reassure Argo that everything was on the level.
"Amigo, it could be a good thing," he chimed in.
"Look," the police captain said brusquely, "some associates of mine have a surplus of sewing machines that they need to sell. If you're as good a salesman as Horacio, you should be able to catch the boat going out next Tuesday. What do you say, amigo?"
The police captain's two gilded front teeth gleamed in the morning sunlight. And, his concealed eyes searched Argo from behind opaque sunglasses. Like everything that Argo encountered in Gran Dolores, the offer was dodgey at best and he didn't believe a word that he was hearing. But he thought better of speaking his mind.
"I don't know anything about selling from door-to-door," he said lamely.
"Shit, all you've got to do is convince them that they need what you're selling and that it's like the one on television. Anyone can be a good salesman. Even a stupid fucking Gringo," he added, putting his native spin on the self-help books that Horacio was forever showing him.
Argo felt himself being drawn into something that he didn't want to have anything to do with. He tried to wriggle again.
"Do the sewing machines work?"
The two young police officers who were listening along roared with laughter. The older one rolled his eyes and then returned to gazing at the calendar. He couldn't believe how naive Argo was after five months in Gran Dolores.
"Look Gringo, do you want to make some money or not?" The police captain asked. "You may not be able to get another visa extension at the end of the month. And I must lamentably inform you, my friend, that we would have to arrest you for illegally residing in the fatherland."
His mood was darkening, like the sultry sky that would rapidly fill each afternoon with tropical thunderclouds. Horacio felt the sudden downdraft. Alarmed, he spoke from where he still stood behind his brother-in-law's shoulder.
"Look amigo, why not try it for a couple of days? Who knows, you might even like it. Besides, we can get you a place to stay in Hotel Buena Chica. I have a cousin who works there."
"Where's that?" Argo asked. Once again, he couldn't believe what he was saying.
"The hotel is in a nice part of town," Horacio said. "Aren't you tired of sleeping on the streets?"
Argo nodded. Briefly forgetting that nothing in Gran Dolores is as it sounds, he began dreaming of a soft bed and a warm shower. That would be enough. The rich tourists could have their 100-dollar per night seaside view. He had had plenty of chances to look out at the tranquil, blue-green Caribbean waters.
"When do I start?"
The police captain smiled. "This evening."
"Don't worry amigo," Horacio said. "You'll be the greatest door-to-door salesman Puerto Esperanza has ever seen."
(To Be Continued.....)
*Disclaimer: All persons, places, events and incidents described in this story are the product of the author's imagination and are entirely ficticious. Any resemblence to actual persons, places, events and incidents is coincidental.
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