Extract from the novel Rock'n'Roll. Translated from Basque by Kristin Addis. Published in Transcript, 2005. Originally published as Rock'n'Roll, Elkar, 2000.
I. ON THE WILD SIDE (AUGUST 4-5, WEDNESDAY-THURSDAY)
The names of the inns are like those of the streets and like the character of the residents in this town: hard to change but for a war, a revolution or some similar cataclysm. I had known the owner of the one called Lisbon since I was a boy. Always the same tall, thin cursive letters, wounded white snakes unmoving on the neon sign that had not lit up for a long time. If it had ever been successful, I wasn't around to see it at the time. The atmosphere of the Lisbon was somewhat contaminated by the city it borrowed its name from, and the melancholy of an endless decline strikes the customer as soon as he enters. Inside, the chairs and tables, the washed-out photographs – the Chiado and Bairro Alto neighborhoods, the huge bridge over the Teixo – the toilets smeared with shit inside and out, everything, in a word, cries out loudly for any touch of newness while the world turns a deaf ear to their complaint. Even Antonio, though a local, pretended to be Portuguese behind the bar, body sluggish, mind on the neighborhood. He seemed almost autistic. Even when I called him Sad-face it failed to brighten his countenance. Another similarity, not unimportant, with the Atlantic city: if it is true that Lisbonites are the ugliest women of any European capital, the few females of the parochial inn looked like they had emerged straight from the pit of repulsiveness.
When I was younger, it would have been an act of corruption for me to swell the ranks of the tie-wearing and balding clientele of the Lisbon. But ever since Kristina had thrown me out, I found refuge there when I needed to re-gather the strength I had spent on the newspaper. Why? Just because. Its prices were on a par with the usual highway robbery you found among the inns of the city. As far as atmosphere goes, neither fish nor fowl: people between 40 and 60 years old for the most part, stagnant in this gathering place of the solitary. Its hours were hardly cause for fame either. On weekdays Antonio closed at one o'clock in the morning and not one minute later. Its placement was not too bad, on the Zabalgune square, yes, but not so far from my new digs in the Old Part that I couldn't make it home without harm. And yet another advantage, one not to be undervalued in the special conditions of the last four months of my life: up to my nose in the stinking muddy pit of my misfortune, I could play the amusing game of self-pity until I was sick of myself without anyone bothering me. I was unlikely to run into co-workers or, especially, friends in the Lisbon.
That Wednesday last August, I was passing yet another profitable afternoon in the domain of Antonio Sad-face, having spent more than two hours splashing through the shit in my brain. After drinking six gins and smoking some fourteen cigarettes without budging from my perch on the stool by the bar, I was reaching the summit of the evening, that is, that emotional moment of comprehension: I was a miserable worm who had failed at everything. A thirsty miserable worm, what's more.
"C'mon, Sad-face, one for the road!"
I raised my voice in vain, though the barman would have nothing but deafness as an excuse for not hearing me. The music had already been turned off; it was nearly one o'clock and the flight of the last marooned customer had left us alone in the inn, each of us the ruler of his side of the bar, each wrapped up in his own thoughts. Antonio, with the speed of a tai-chi master, extended his right pointer toward the clock above the mirror over the bar. Three minutes to one.
"Jeez, you're not going to let me go home dry, are you? Let's have some of your poison. I swear I won't denounce you to the health inspector."
The Lisbon has no pretensions. If you ask for a gin – or a whiskey or a cognac – without offering further details, Sad-face will set the worst in the house on the bar before you, in a glass that was never clean, and always without ice. Make no mistake: when I'm in woe-is-me mode, that's how I like my gin, bad and neat, so that it leaves the bitter taste of rusted metal on the roof of my mouth on its way down. Kristina hated this inclination in me.
The barman took the empty glass from in front of me and, planting his elbow on the wooden bar, wiped away the damp circle it had left with a red and white cloth with a tired half-circular motion that seemed like it would never end. As if this display of cleanliness so uncustomary in the Lisbon weren't enough, I also had to see a broom in his hands to understand that he was determined to keep my request unheard. That Wednesday night last August, Sad-face and I would have fallen out if the squeak of the badly oiled door had not announced someone's arrival.
Despite the dark mole on his cheek, I didn't recognize him for a moment, and not only because of the gins I had chucked down my throat earlier, or the months without seeing each other. In possession of 20 kilos less weight and looking like a fool in a red and orange designer tracksuit, he looked like a short-legged transgalactic hero from one of those so educational films my son loves, disguised as a flame and out of place in the melancholy of the Lisbon. Sad-face's greeting was the titanic effort of forcing his right pointer again toward the clock above the mirror over the bar: one minute past one. He didn't know the new arrival hadn't come to drink. Ignoring the unwelcoming barman, he came straight over to me.
"Edu, I need your help."
Through the front window, the long, blue nose of the car sucked up the pavement of the empty street like a ravenous teenager with endless spaghetti. My friend Creases drove me at great speed through the sleeping city. Bent over the elegant dashboard and almost without leaving space between the steering wheel and his shrunken and multicolored belly, he made the wheels screech, the clutch scream and the gearshift grind, accompanying every violent turn with yelling and swearing.
"The guy who answered the phone must have been your brother, right? Fucking bastard! Instead of swearing at me for prying him out of his den, he managed to grasp that I was desperate. And don't think he told me right away where I could find you. And for my part? Dammit! Edu, don't ever buy a piece of shit diesel car, I mean it!"
He went through most stoplights on red and, when forced to stop to avoid a collision, he beat on the metal side of the car, flapping his thin hand out the window. The light from outside lit small, short-lived stars in the gelled mass of hair on his formerly shaved head.
"Go on! Move it, already!"
My guts were completely churning, turned inside out by this malevolent amusement ride designed by some crazed engineer. With a gesture of need, I asked him to stop. It was not received well:
"What the fuck? Are you trying to piss me off?"
We were in the middle of a long avenue, all four of the car's indicators on. A directionless steamship in a port emptied by a typhoon. I got out of the car, pressing my hand against my closed mouth, heaving.
"If I get a fine, it'll come out of your money. And throw it all up, you're not puking in my car."
In order to avoid parking the car, I emptied my belly into one of the gardens planted by the city. Quickly and, if I may say so, cleanly as well. When I returned to Creases' side, my distress had not completely dissipated, nor had the quickened comings and goings of my mind. My friend couldn't contain his anger.
"Some help you are! If I had found Tiny at home, don't think I'd have you here ruining my evening!"
Back in the car, I sought a fixed point to focus on to avoid renewing my dizziness. In the absence of anything else, I chose the end of a yellow rag peeping out of the glove compartment; with my eyes nearly burning a hole in it, I gave myself up to my as yet destinationless journey.
"Keep an eye out. We're following an old van, green and medium long."
I didn't ask why we were following an old, green and medium long van, but that caused me to raise my eyes from the end of the yellow rag. Out of the window, the same spectacle as when I left the Lisbon, blurred by the steam on the window as well as the clouds in my mind: empty streets, cars parked in neat rows and the ghostly shine of the streetlights. I took a handkerchief out of my pocket and cleaned my glasses which I had dirtied with spittle. The view didn't get any clearer.
"There are two of them. They parked their thing next to ours, in the service station on the highway. The driver had long hair and an earring in his left ear. Otherwise, I don't remember much, more's the pity. Old or young, I couldn't say. Riff-raff like that has no age. There won't be any shortage of knives, but I've got much better weapons anyway."
Leaving the steering wheel to his left hand, Creases reached under the seat with his right. Without taking his eyes off the road he showed it to me, sliding it over to me so that it couldn't be seen from outside.
"An Astra, 7.62 mm. Seven shots. As legal as this car. Every month I take it apart and clean it all, piece by piece, even wipe its silvery ass with cotton. If some son of a bitch comes around looking for trouble, pow! We'll get him and he'll be fried on the spot. What do you say?"
I started looking for an appropriate response, but the inside of my head was a blank television screen.
"In this world you have to give as good as you get."
Creases' hand went back under the seat and returned empty. For a while he didn't say anything more. Lulled by the silence, my eyes started to close.
"Edu, if you fall asleep, I will kick you out of here."
We hadn't left the city. Nevertheless, I could almost believe we had unexpectedly been transported to a strange town. There was nothing familiar, we were crossing an indistinctive area. Certainly no vehicles like my friend wanted. "Green, old and medium long," I repeated to myself. I looked at the car's digital dashboard: 08.04.99 01:32 17.5°C. Before long, my eyelids were getting heavy again. Not fighting the force that was rapidly overtaking me, I let my body sway to the rhythm of the hum of the car.
"That's all we need!"
It seemed to me that Creases himself had hit me on the head. I didn't realize right away that, because he had braked and I didn't have my seatbelt on, I had hit the windshield, boom! We had stopped on a zebra crossing that flowed into a flower garden even though there were plenty of legal parking places both in front of us and behind us. My friend was searching through his T-shirt pocket inside his tracksuit, unconcerned about my injured forehead. He removed a folded piece of white paper.
"You're nuts if you think I'm taking you anywhere to make you drink four black coffees one after the other. I'll call Tiny again, but first, we will appeal to the gods of Chemistry."
From the side pocket of the car he took out the maroon leather folder that held the car's documentation and put it on his knee. With a graceful and precise motion, he opened the white paper, very carefully, without opening the central fold, and from it, he spread out a whitish powder, carefully, on top of the folder. First a short line, and then the second, a bit longer, lengthened and pushed into lines with a credit card.
"'Delicacy of Altiplano'. Or at least that's what they sold it to me as. Chalk, plaster and who knows what other crap they put in. Even so, in times of need like tonight it does me good. I'll charge you another time, but for today it's on the house. Got a dollar bill on you? Remember how this works? The newer the better."
My unaccustomed hands slipped toward my thin jacket. Finding my billfold there calmed me down a little, a calm that I thought was lacking in my first movement. Having paid for a number of pitchers at the Lisbon, my assets consisted of a single bill and not one like Creases had asked for, but one that had known many hands and markets. Even so, my friend didn't have too much trouble rolling it into a proper tube. He bent his head to the folder first. When he passed it over to my knee, the longer line had disappeared.
Š Rock'n'roll: Elkar