Happy birthday, James W. Fuerst! Celebrate by reading Fuerst’s “El Hueco,” which we published in 2022 in Puerto Rican Writers Folio: A Hauntology! Then view him reading from this work at our in-person/virtual event at the People’s Forum and at our virtual event.
As Jack trudges up the stairs to Ukukus that Thursday night, Umberto, Cardo, Chaska, and Graciela stop him on their way down. Umberto says they’re going to another bar and that Jack should go with them, because Ukukus isn’t going to be good tonight. Something about the way Umberto says it makes Jack ask what he means, and Umberto says “no es seguro”—not safe. Jack’s not sure what he means by that either, but when Chaska unexpectedly threads her arm through his, he tags along with them anyway.
Chaska and Jack do a couple of bumps of blanquita as they walk behind the others west on Espaderos to San Juan de Dios and Nueva Baja—essentially the same street, the name of which changes every intersection or two—and stop at El Hueco, a bar on the corner of Nueva Baja and Desamparados. They’ve gone about five or six blocks from the Plaza de Armas in the direction opposite the Amaru Hostal, into a neighborhood Jack hasn’t been to before, and which is palpably more rundown and impoverished, more depopulated and sporadically lit than any he’s been to in the center of Cuzco thus far. The street itself is also too quiet, enough to make him wary.
El Hueco is on the second floor and, given its location, exactly what you’d expect inside. There’s a gashed countertop on an uneven bar with wooden posts at the corners from which drape strings of outdoor lights. The tables, chairs, and barstools were clearly purchased for their utility rather than their aesthetics at least thirty years ago, well before they became as beat-up as they are unsightly. The décor on the dingy chalk-pink walls is limited to the flags of some but not all Central and South American countries and action photos of soccer players seemingly torn out of pulped magazines. As for the clientele, it tilts almost exclusively to locals of various coppers and browns, the majority of whom look either too young or too rough. The only thing El Hueco has to commend it, in fact, is its size—it’s about twice as large as Ukukus, a portion at the back end of which is devoted to a low stage (where musical instruments are set up), but most of which is comprised by the wide, foot-worn boards of a wooden dance floor.
In some ways, Jack supposes he’s lucky to have a chance to go to a real Cuzcan dive, but he doesn’t feel so much lucky at the moment as watched—a number of heads turned as they all walked in and as yet haven’t turned away. Although Umberto and Jack are close in height and overall coloring, and therefore the most likely to be pegged as turistas or gringos, Umberto snakes to the bar and shakes hands with a few people almost instantly—he seems to know someone everywhere—which leaves Jack as the primary source of scrutiny. He recalls some of Umberto’s tales from other nights and wonders for a moment how far on the fringes Umberto has steered the group in search of a good time. Jack tries not to think about it. He narrows his gaze and takes a step toward the bar, and a very pretty and very young woman or girl—maybe eighteen, most likely not—in vampy makeup, ponytail, halter top, no bra, and skin-tight jeans comes over to him with two glasses of something and asks Jack if he wants a drink. Before he can reply, Chaska steps between them and shoos the other away. It’s completely out of character for Chaska, so he asks her what’s up.
“You have to be careful in a place like this,” she tells him in Spanish. “There are chicas peperas here, like that little whore, who’ll slip something in your drink, walk you outside, rob you of everything, and leave you lying unconscious in the street.”
“Seriously?” Jack asks.
“Sí,” she answers. “And there are pickup boys, too, but many of them will rape your ass before they rob you and then leave you lying unconscious in the street.” Jack must make a face because she continues, “If you don’t believe me, guapito, go outside and find out for yourself. But don’t worry, if you stay with me, I’ll protect you.”
Those are more continuous words than Chaska has spoken to him in all the times they’ve seen each other, and because this is her city, her neighborhoods, her streets and haunts, Jack’s nearly convinced that she will.
He orders pisco sours from the stony-faced bartender then looks around from his position at the far corner of the bar against the wall. A slow, sad Spanish ballad scratches its way free of cracking stereo speakers—someone has lost his heart, his love, and doesn’t know where or how to get them back—and a dumpy woman in her early-forties or so with pleated pants hiked high over her hips spins herself slowly and sadly across the dance floor. Perhaps it’s the change of venue or scenery or a simple difference in lighting, but Jack thinks he can rather easily identify the sneaky-looking con men and prostitutes, the pickup girls and guys speckled throughout the crowd. The latter are conspicuously well-dressed and young, likely underage, while the former are older and blend in with the surroundings. They all look on edge, though, as if they’re starving and waiting for dinner to be served. It’s a much seamier atmosphere than he’s accustomed to, and he wonders why, of all places, they’ve come there.
* * *
Umberto has several close, almost conspiratorial conversations with a man sporting an unkempt beard, a khaki-green, short-billed cap over unruly locks of hair, and a matching khaki-green, button-down. Jack can’t recall if he’s met him before, but the man almost seems familiar, and not just because he looks like he’s taken the first flight over from a documentary about Mao’s Cultural Revolution, complete with uniform. They’ve come to a bar not a costume party, though, so Jack makes it a point to stay away from him. Every once in a while, Umberto takes the cigarette out of his mouth and raises his glass and he and his associate salute Jack from afar, although he has no idea why they’re doing it or what they could possibly be talking about. It feels staged and false, and Jack doesn’t like it. The next time Umberto strolls by and is within reach, Jack tugs at his shirt and tells him that he wants to go back to Ukukus.
“We can no do this, amico, it is no seguro tonight,” he repeats.
“What do you mean, no seguro?” Jack asks.
Umberto shrugs and shakes his head, as if he doesn’t understand the question. Then he pulls out a tiny ziplock baggie, flicks it with his middle finger a couple of times, and snorts a heaping nose full of coke right there at the bar, as the bartender pretends to look in the other direction.
“It is better here tonight, anyway, amico. No hay policía aquí.”
There are no police here. Is that what he means by safe? Jack doesn’t know. Police or no police, though, there’s a restlessness at El Hueco, a kind of adverse current buzzing through the place that eats at him all night, in addition to the worries he’s already shouldering, and every bump he takes, every drink, every unfamiliar guy or girl who comes too near leaves him a little more rattled, a little more fazed. He hangs close to Chaska and Umberto when possible, trying to remain alert and aware of who’s around, and is almost even happy on one occasion when he recognizes that the guy wearing the yellow bandana and the Members Only jacket lunging toward the bar is just that asshole Cardo and no one to be concerned about. The worst part of all is that he’s stuck—he doesn’t trust the neighborhood or some of El Hueco’s patrons enough to try to leave on his own but has no luck whatsoever persuading someone to go with him.
So, they stay, and the only bright spot of the evening is the band, which comes on not too long after they’ve arrived and plays two hour-long sets around an hour-and-a-half break. It’s an Afro-Peruvian group from Chilca, in Cañete province, which features members who are obviously the mixed racial and cultural descendants of Africans, Indians, and Spanish creoles. There are conga and tom-tom drummers, three guitarists, four other percussionists, and a lively, black-brown man at the center who has what looks like a wooden box hanging from a string around his neck, which he plays by opening and closing its lid to create a bass-drum rhythm with one hand, while rapping it with a drumstick as if it were a snare or a cymbal with the other. Chaska tells him the instrument is called a cajón, which Jack knows means box or drawer, but he has to refrain from gawking at its owner and some of his accompanists, entranced as he is by the realization that these are the first “black” people he’s seen since leaving the States. Only when he spent the summer in Germany has he ever gone this long without seeing black people before, and while the circumstance makes sense—there are very few in either country—it seems an inordinately strange similarity between two countries that have almost nothing else in common. Chaska tells him that the songs the band plays are known as landos, the backbeats and cadences of which remind him to some extent of more languid rumbas and plenas, also heavily infused with African percussive patterns and rhythms, the Afro-Latin-Caribbean cousins of the blues.
Chaska and Jack dance—she in her slippery huayños, he in moves improvised to keep up—to zesty, swaying melodies more suited to turquoise-rimmed islands than snow-capped Andean peaks. Jack wants to lose himself in the music and dance, to somehow summon the intensity and oblivion of the Taki Onqoy movement that Ocampo had lectured about earlier in the week: the “dancing sickness” that had overtaken indigenous Andeans at the end of the sixteenth century, prophesying the revenge of their gods over the murderous Christian invaders, who in turn were terrified by what they saw. But he can’t. He’s heartsick with longing for Eva, for the east coast of the United States, and feels utterly estranged from the cultural home of his father, a home Jack has pursued in his absence but has never come to know.
He wonders at that moment what he’s really doing, what he’s after, what he thought he’d find in Cuzco, how he’d ever convinced himself that this was a good idea, or that it might somehow work out. He just as quickly wonders whether it would’ve been any different if he’d gone to the islands instead. He feels foolish and naïve and above all self-deceived, and thinks it’d be better if he’d never come.
When the band finishes the second set, Jack and Chaska return to the bar for drinks. He’s somber and quiet and about halfway through his pisco sour when a slow steady spinning begins to gyrate inside his head and quickly picks up speed. Chaska takes his face in her hands and stares at him, her eyes growing wide and grave.
“What’s wrong?” she asks.
“Yull null shay.”
“Vamos. Ahora,” she says, and throws his arm around her shoulders.
“Dove stai andando?” Umberto calls rowdily after them, as they approach the exit. “Iago, come back, stay! I make introductions for you with my friend. We are talking over here, come, we talk!”
Jack closes his eyes tightly against the nauseating revolutions twirling ever faster in his brain and leans on Chaska for support as she hurries them out the door.
There’s a blast of frigid air, his body shivers and becomes so heavy that he feels like he’s falling through himself to some obscure lower plane, deeper and deeper in the dark.
Jack wakes up confused and disoriented before he realizes he’s in his room at the Amaru Hostal. The windowpanes are clouded by condensation, but he’s lying in bed too grubby and stale to have taken a shower. As he struggles to grasp what’s going on, the bathroom door opens, and in walks Chaska, freshly bathed, clad only in panties, her long black hair wrapped in a towel on her head. She opens and closes each of the room’s dresser drawers, running her hands through them as she does, appears to bend down to the base of the wall where the safe is, but Jack can’t see what she’s doing because his view is partly blocked by the edge of the bed. A few seconds later, Chaska stands then takes Jack’s wallet off the desk and starts picking through it.
Stupefied, he considers slapping himself to make sure that he’s awake. Why is Chaska there? Why is she undressed and going through his wallet? Is she looking for something? If so, what? He doesn’t remember having brought her back to his room. He tries to retrace his steps, replay the night’s events, but the more he thinks about it, the more it occurs to him that he can’t recall anything after Chaska and he were at El Hueco. The last thing he remembers is feeling dizzy and off-balance at the bar, but that’s it. Everything else is blank.
Chaska must think he’s asleep, but that doesn’t explain what she’s doing. Jack sits up quickly in bed. She turns in his direction; he stands and rushes at her, grabbing her by the wrists. If she’s caught off guard, she doesn’t show it, does nothing at all to resist. The only reaction she makes is to lift her chin slightly, as if providing him with a target to strike or readying herself for a kiss. Jack does neither. He asks her in Spanish what “the fucked” she thinks she’s doing but is able to restrain himself from gripping her harder, shaking her, or something more. Her limbs are loose and yielding, her face expressionless but still somehow defiant, and she doesn’t answer his question but rather directs his gaze to the desktop by shifting her eyes to it. Lying on the desk is a piece of folded notebook paper, inside the fold is a handwritten note. In it, Chaska says she’s borrowing ten soles so she can get something to eat; she’s sorry to take without asking, but she doesn’t want to wake him up and is too hungry to wait. She’ll pay him back with interest tonight.
Chaska sits on the edge of the bed as Jack reads, the bed she apparently shared with him last night, and he has trouble looking at her when he’s done. He feels guilty and shifts his eyes downward, although he’s relieved to see that his underwear is on. He asks Chaska when’s the last time she ate. She says Wednesday evening, a small supper of potatoes and corn. He asks her what day it is; she cocks her head skeptically to the side and says it’s Friday, Friday morning.
Jack’s not sure if that helps to resituate him or not, but he’s ashamed and humbled by his incomprehension of what her life must be like, a life lived in a poor and dangerous neighborhood on the outskirts of Cuzco, where not only one or two meals but entire days can go by without food. He tells Chaska to get dressed, that he’ll pull on some clothes, be gone for a few minutes, and return with something for them to eat. She says thank you and smiles widely, fully, for the first time he’s seen, before taking the rest of her clothes into the bathroom and closing the door.
* * *
After they eat, Jack walks Chaska as far as the Plaza de Armas while she fills him in on the missing hours from what she insists was just last night. It seems that someone spiked his drink, or at least that’s what she thinks, because he became swiftly incoherent at the bar and then could barely walk. She was very lucky, she says, to get him downstairs, outside, and into a combi before he passed out, because he’s so much bigger than she is, too heavy for her to carry. Eladio the Old with the insane Elvis coif answered the outer door and only let them both in because she offered him a few soles to help Jack out of the cab and to his room. Then she took off his clothes, put him in bed, and brought him a glass of water that he tried to spit out but that she forced him to drink.
Chaska’s with him now, he woke up with her in his room, she seems to have spent the night, but he doesn’t remember any of it or immediately believe her. He can’t.
If someone really did put something in his drink—a hallucinogen, a tranquilizer, maybe a psychotropic drug—it must’ve been a strong one, strong enough that it’s fractured his consciousness after the fact. If he was drugged, would he remember anything? He doesn’t know. He feels mixed up, baffled, not himself, and while visions of mostly naked Chaska are still vivid in his mind, he’s thankful that he didn’t actually do anything with her—he doesn’t need that kind of guilt or self-recrimination hanging over his head along with everything else.
As Chaska and he prepare to part, he thanks her again, for the tenth or eleventh time. She takes the ten-sole note that she got from his wallet out of her pocket and tries to hand it to him. He shakes his head no and gestures for her to keep it. “De hecho”—In fact—he says, and reaches for his wallet. If what she says is true, she’s been a tremendous help, she may even have saved him from robbery, assault, maybe both, maybe more, and the thought of her going without food again is too much for Jack to take. He wants to give her a few soles more. His brain counts automatically when he peers into the bill sleeve of his wallet, but it seems that only twelve or fifteen soles (over and above the ten she’s holding) are gone. Those probably went for the cab and Eladio the Old’s help, so she doesn’t seem to have helped herself to more. There are two fifties left; he plucks one out and gives it to her. She says thank you when she palms the bill but looks away from him, down at her black combat boots. He asks her what’s wrong.
“Nothing,” she says. “But normally I don’t do this.”
“Don’t do what?”
She stares fixedly with stone black irises into Jack’s eyes, as if attempting to implant a notion directly in his thoughts through the sheer intensity of her gaze, then leans forward and kisses him. Then Chaska turns and walks off. Maybe she thinks her actions have made her point plain, but Jack has no idea what either her confession or silence means.
Note: This fiction part of Big Other’s Puerto Rican Writer’s Folio: A Hauntology
James W. Fuerst is the author of Huge and New World Postcolonial: The Political Thought of Inca Garcilaso de la Vega. Holding an M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard University and an M.F.A from the New School, he is an assistant professor and departmental faculty advisor of writing in Literary Studies at Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts, the New School.