The Writers Voice
After the heat of the afternoon had passed, Gunderson and I headed for Palmer's Bar. I'd only been in Cuarto a week, but it didn't take me long to fall into the habit. At four o'clock nothing moves and the only sound is the pulsing throb of the dockside pumps.
Palmer is from down river. When the pumping station showed signs of being permanent, he came up from Buenos Aires and built a sit-down bar. It has a long covered porch, screened and protected from the flies and the hot afternoon sun. There's a juke box with music from home and a vast collection of tangos and fada tunes from Spain. There's a television set with an endless procession of Western videos in Spanish translation. The only other entertainment is the periodic avalanche of ice cubes as they spill at measured intervals from the ice machine in Palmer's bar.
"Look, across the street." Gunderson said, "See that man -- the white man with the beard?"
Standing with his hands folded on his chest
was the most disreputable white
Gunderson took a long, slow sip of his gin and tonic. "There but for the grace of God, Bullitt," he quoted.
"Who is he?" I asked.
"Name's Nelson -- used to be a company man like us. I don't know whether Nelson is his first or last name. He's been here six years or more -- ever since the company started up. Went native they say."
"Six years! Didn't he rotate?" I couldn't imagine a company man staying longer than his contract. I was replacing Gunderson after his two-year contract expired. "How can anybody stay in this God-forsaken place more than two years?"
Gunderson shrugged and stood up. He waved to the man across the street, "Hey Nelson -- need a drink?"
Nelson squinted in the bright sun, smiled vacantly, and hurried with a shuffling, limping gait to the porch steps of Palmer's Bar. He stood there, outside the screen door and nodded in assent -- but he didn't come in.
Gunderson snapped his fingers for the waiter, "A double whiskey for Mr. Nelson .... yes, in a paper cup, and another round for us, Cookie."
The waiter walked to the porch steps and
told Nelson, "No come in. You wait
Nelson removed his straw hat and bobbed his head. He held his paper cup up to Gunderson as if to say 'thank you,' then shuffled off across the street sipping as he went.
Gunderson shook his head sadly. "Poor bastard. Let him be a lesson to you, Bullitt."
"What's the matter with him?" I asked.
"Like I said, went native. Got involved
with a Celota woman -- married her, I
"Is he still with the company?"
"No, they wrote him off after his contract
expired. He became a tribal member -- an honest-to-goodness Celota father -- out
there in the jungle with them. But I'll tell you, Bullitt, it's harder for
a white man to make it with the Celotas than it would be for a Celota to make it
with us. That's the honest
Our second round of gin and tonics arrived, and he waited for Cookie to return to the bar before he spoke. ".... you can move up but you can't move down -- Nelson never thought of that. Thought they'd take him in as a chief -- after all he was a company man -- a civilized man with connections, right? Like hell! What good's a civilized man who can't hunt and fish or feed his family? The upshot was, they kicked him out -- even threatened to kill his family if he came back. Now he's .... well, on the bubble, you might say. Nobody wants him."
We watched Nelson cross the street and sit in the shade of the vegetable market. He put his back against the wall and slowly slid down to a squatting position holding his waxed paper cup in both hands. He tipped his hat down low over his eyes and appeared to be asleep, but we could see the paper cup disappear up under the brim of his hat and back out again at regular intervals.
"Then the drink set in -- he's a drunk now
you see, confirmed -- incurable,"
The appearance of Nelson had spoiled the afternoon for me. I couldn't imagine anyone doing something like that. A fling with a native woman? Sure, those things happen all the time, but to swap a promising career for a life in the jungle? Then to find yourself banished by the Celota as well! It was hard to rationalize. Gunderson's attitude disturbed me .... why hadn't some one stepped in to help him? Why didn't the company bring him home? There was nothing in the company's guidelines about people like Nelson. There weren't supposed to be people like him. We were told there were Celota bush people, whom we would probably never see. Then, there were the outsiders, shopkeepers like Palmer the bartender, who came up river on our empty boats from Buenos Aires and opened small businesses in 'Port Town' as we called it. That's all.
Then there was us -- the whites, in our white linen suits. It took a little getting used to, but on the whole, the social hierarchy was pretty simple. Everybody knew how they should treat everybody else. In the middle of it was poor Nelson -- a living Ishmael, a castaway, an outcast in any man's company.
Gunderson and I had dinner at the only private restaurant in town the night before he left. It was hot and we took a table by the screened opening that faced the dock. There was the faint smell of burning garbage from the landfill at the edge of town, and any view we might have had of the estuary was blocked by the enormous black wall of the tanker that was scheduled to leave in the morning.
"I've only been here a week, and already I envy you going home, Gunderson. I'm sure I'll be a mental case before the next two years are up."
"Make yourself a promise and we'll drink to it."
"What'll I promise myself?"
"Take a look out there, he's sitting on the edge of the dock." It was him again, Nelson. He was drinking from a bottle wrapped in a paper bag. "Promise yourself you won't go native."
"Is there only one of him?" I asked.
"Far as I know, yes -- and mind you, he's despondent. He's got nowhere to go. If the company pulls out, he's finished."
"You know, I can't believe our company
would abandon him -- out here in the
"Look at us, Bullitt. You know where these prawns came from? Not from any waters around here, not any more. There used to be prawns here, and catfish too -- not any more. 'Our company,' as you call it, yours and mine, put an end to that. No wonder the Celota hate our guts. Fish can't live in these waters any more, not with the mess we made. The river is full of oil and sewage. The Celota have to make a two-day trek up river to fish now, and by the time they bring their catch back, the fish are rotten, so they've learned to dry them and salt them down like Eskimos do. These prawns come flash-frozen all the way from Buenos Aires along with the cook who cooked them."
I had to agree with him. We were like space
travelers on an alien planet. The
Nelson got up from his seat at the edge of the dock. He shook his bottle and upended it -- it was empty. He threw it over the side of the dock and looked around, then he urinated on the ship's ropes wrapped around the pilings. It was nearly dark, a darkness I've only seen here. Here in Cuarto the sun sinks below the rim of the western Andes and a half-darkness with a bright blue overhead sky will persist for hours. Then unexpectedly, night will fall as quickly as if you had snapped off the beam of a flashlight. Until you grow used to the sudden darkness, it's dangerous to be on the streets of Port Town. Nelson knew this more than anyone, and he scuttled away to hide for the night.
When Gunderson left for home, I felt a curious responsibility for Nelson. I offered him what little comfort I could. In addition to the daily double whiskey that he eagerly accepted at the bottom of the porch steps of Palmer's Bar, I would buy him a meal now and then. It wasn't easy. Neither Palmer's Bar nor the two public restaurants in Port Town would let him inside. Whenever we ate together, we sat on a bench on the dock and ate from paper sacks. There was a make-shift, two bungalow motel back of Palmer's, and I would rent one of them occasionally for an afternoon so he could shower.
Nevertheless, he seemed to go downhill. It may have been my fault, for the few acts of kindness on my part may have alienated him still further from us and his adopted family. It was difficult to engage him in conversation. When we'd eat together at portside, he would stare at the tankers in the estuary. Long snaky pipelines connected them to the pumping station on shore, and the quiet throb of the machinery was the only sound we heard. He seemed to be unaware of the ever present smell of burning garbage and diesel fumes.
"What is it, Nelson? What are you thinking?"
Then, if he spoke, his voice would be dry and shallow, like the voice of someone used to living alone. "Thinking? .... Yes, I guess I was .... sorry, Mr. Bullitt." A stupid question! I couldn't possibly expect an answer.
At such times he would quickly finish eating and leave. I learned not to ask him questions of a personal nature. At other times he could be very frank concerning the company's philosophy and the future of Cuarto. "Once they reach the breaking point of profit, long before the oil is gone -- watch, Mr. Bullitt! They'll pull out of here and leave a wasteland behind them."
He compared the company to the Ti-Ti, a
breed of wild monkey that roam this
I would see him almost daily when he was in town. Then he would disappear for weeks. During his absences, I would wonder how he got along without someone to buy him a drink or a meal. Then, without warning, he would appear again in the dusty street, with his queer shuffling gait looking as down and out as ever. When I'd treat him to a meal or a drink, he would offer no explanation. We would be just as we had been before, in fact, he would often pick up the conversation where we'd left it a month ago.
While Nelson was an interesting diversion in the routine, my work for the company took most of my time. But time passed very slowly, and my job was not very challenging. This is a common complaint among men in overseas assignments in the field. We grew tired of our jobs and each other -- testy. Too much time on our hands. To preserve our sanity, most of us had a personal hobby. I suppose mine was Nelson.
Toward the end of my contract, Nelson disappeared completely. After two months I had almost given up on him. Then, out of the blue, came a call from Dr. Gibbons at the dispensary . . .
"You know a Nelson Spender?" It was the first time I'd ever heard his full name. He was always 'Nelson' to me, and for a moment I couldn't place him at all.
"I don't think so .... Spender you say? Is he there at the hospital?"
"Yes -- raggedy guy. Looks done in. A watchman picked him up in the street about an hour ago and brought him here. I wouldn't have called you, Mr. Bullitt, but the watchman said you knew him."
"My God, Nelson! I'll be right over."
He was the only patient they had, and yet they had quarantined him. The doctor, a sandy haired youngster from San Francisco, said it was because they had no idea what was wrong with him.
"He's got a high fever, he's not responsive, and he looks like he's had the shit kicked out of him."
"How did you get his name?"
"Thing around his neck -- like a gourd or something with his passport and stuff. He used to be a company man I hear -- I suppose we have to do all we can."
He was in a small, windowless room, more
like a closet than a hospital room.
"Thanks for coming over, Mr. Bullitt. He's all yours -- maybe he shouldn't have visitors, but just between you and me, I don't think it makes a hell of a lot of difference." Gibbons gave me a mask and told me to leave it on while I was in the room with him.
I turned away from Nelson and said, "You think he's going?"
"Wouldn't surprise me, isn't much that's right with him. Stay as long as you want, I'll be outside if you need me."
I pulled over a chair and sat down. He struggled weakly against the canvas wrist straps, rolling his body from side to side as though he wanted to raise himself. I wasn't at all sure he would hear me, "Nelson, it's Bullitt -- can I do something for you?" His motions calmed a bit, and through his closed eyelids, I thought I could see his eyes moving.
"Sit -- sit up! .... Hard to breathe!" He gasped. What the hell, I thought -- what difference would it make? I rearranged his pillow and slid his slight body upwards in the bed. How light he was, I thought -- as though he was hollow. He breathed a little easier and suddenly opened his eyes.
"Killing them! My God, I can't believe the KILLING OF THEM! They tied me down! .... made me watch them die!" He turned his head away from me and closed his eyes again. This time there were tears on his cheeks. "Mr. Bullitt -- I never believed they would do such a thing! Believe me, I would never have gone back there. They were everything to me. Everything! Eleya and Dimi -- little Dimi! How could they do such a thing, Mr. Bullitt? .... The horror of it!!"
He was on the point of telling me more, but
the words stuck in his throat. He
Nelson went on like this for more than an hour, then I thought he had slipped into a troubled sleep. I couldn't bear to keep this knowledge to myself -- it was as hard for me to accept as it had been for Nelson. How could the Celota kill their own people? Maybe they realized it would hurt Nelson more by killing his wife and son than by killing him! What were we doing here in this God-forsaken place? Oil! Look where it's brought us .... the damned oil! It's turned all of us into savages! I got up quietly and went out to see the doctor. I couldn't stand to be alone with Nelson any longer.
He looked up from his week-old newspaper. "Hi. How's he doin'?"
"I don't know; he can't go on like this .... "
The doctor sighed, put the paper down and
picked up his stethoscope, walked
He was back in a minute -- "Well, that's it, he's had a seizure -- it's over. I'll need some information from you, okay?" He opened a file drawer and pulled out some forms. "Death is only the first complication," he said.
"I know," I added. "Filling out the forms is the final complication."
Dr. Gibbons stacked the forms neatly in front of him and looked up. "Not quite, Mr. Bullitt -- what do we do with him?"
Yes, that was the final complication . . .
Ten years have passed since that awful night in the infirmary, and I have forgotten none of the details. I think the most poignant of them was that we had no one to notify. Nelson Spender was all there was, and save for the few of us who knew him here in Cuarto, he had no friends. There was no family back home. Ileya and Dimi were the only family he had.
He was the first white man to die in Port Town, and the last, so far as I know. We buried him on a small bluff overlooking the estuary the following afternoon. There were only three of us, four counting Palmer the bartender. The stench from the landfill was almost unbearable; there was a grayish brown smog hanging over the estuary. Two turkey buzzards watched us from the trees at the river's edge.
I remember thinking -- what a terrible place to spend eternity.
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