Thursday, August 09, 2007


Not long ago a friend who's been studying Spanish, wrote me an email titled Lengua. He meant idioma, but rather than correct him I thought I'd tell him a story about a guy I used to know called Lengua. Here it is.

The Iquitos Port of Mastranza, on which sat my Cold Beer Blues Bar/Cevicheria Madeleina, was considered by many locals to be the single toughest block in Iquitos. During high water season the port, the oldest in the city, would have as many as 15 large riverboats each loading or unloading their hundreds of tons of goods and hundreds of passengers daily. All of those goods, from freezers to motorcycles to bags of cement, had to be carried up and down a muddy slope from street level to the boats, and the cargonderos, the cargo men, were a strong and underpaid lot.
The street at the top of the hill, Pablo Rossel, was one of two streets in Iquitos where trucks were permitted to park while waiting for a contract to move the cargo from the boats to wherever it was going. And the men who worked those trucks, the men who loaded and unloaded all the cargo the cargonderos carried up the muddy slope, were also strong and underpaid.
Both groups were moving unimaginable tonnage in the course of the day, much of it in the heat of the day, and were generally fueled by aguar diente--cane liquor--cut with kerosene. In the evenings many smoked pasta--unrefined cocaine base still heavy with lyme. Either can make a man want to fight. Both together after a day of carrying 300 pound motorcycles up and down a slippery hill on 140-pound shoulders only increased the desire to want to take on the world.
And of all the men who worked both the boats and the trucks, the strongest was Lengua. Lengua grew up in a little house at the top of the port, across the street from my bar. He was a full-size bigger than most of the other men, at maybe 5' 10" and 170-pounds of pure muscle. At his best he could carry five 92-pound sacks of cement on a templine up the hill, nearly triple his body weight. He had long arms that hung low from broad shoulders and earned the moniker Lengua--the tongue--because after his extraordinary feats of strength he'd often leave his very long tongue hanging out of his mouth to help cool off, like dogs do.
Lengua had two vices: He drank aguar diente and smoked pasta and nearly every day he'd pick out one or two workers to take out his wrath on: I'd often stand at the door of my bar and watch his victims run from him, screaming. Those he caught he'd hit mercilessly until he was pulled off--or more often, lured off by the offer of a good drink.
Lengua had a sister. She was a lovely girl who knew my wife, Chepa, and would sometimes come into the bar and they'd visit. She also had an ex-husband with a bad temper.
One day she came in looking for Chepa while I had a friend who was getting quite drunk sitting with a couple of other pals at the bar. My friend, who had a lovely wife of his own, took one look at Lengua's sister and fell in love. I'd never seen him behave the way he did in the next hour. He sent her a drink, introduced himself, asked me to put on some good dancing music, moved some tables and danced with her. Lengua's sister behaved just as oddly: she drank and got giddy, danced with my friend, and in an hour agreed to leave with him.
They climbed into his old jeep and started off down the road.
In five minutes my friend was back. I asked him what happened.
"Well, I was going to take her to a hotel. I've never wanted a woman so much, so instantly, before," he said. "But by the time I had driven about five blocks I realized what I might do to my marriage if someone saw me with her and so I changed my mind, drove back and here I am."
"And where is she?"
"Oh, you didn't see me drop her off across the street at her house?"
I told him I hadn't but took his word for it. He sat back down at the bar and ordered another beer.
A few minutes later we heard a terrible, piercing screaming coming from across the street. We all went to the windows to see what it was: Lengua's sister's ex-husband was beating her senseless.
We had the police there in no time and they took him away in one car and her in another. My friend offered to ride with her to the police station; she insisted that he not.
In a little while the officers came in to get some free beer while they explained that someone had seen her leaving in my friend's car and alerted the ex-husband, who lived not far away and had been drinking aguar diente and kerosene that day. So he'd come to kill her.
"So lucky we were nearby," said one of the officers. "Let's have another beer, eh?"
I served them up. It's just how business is done in Iquitos.
What happened next I only discovered a couple of days later.
It seems that while Lengua's sister was at the police station giving a statement, the fact that a gringo--my friend--was part of the story came up. The police immediately brought in a US Drug Enforcement Administration agent. The agent, since dismissed I'm told, took the woman aside and while talking with her convinced her to have sex. Or at least that was his side, explained another DEA agent who frequented my bar and told me the story.
Her story was that he'd simply raped her.
In any event, according to the agent who told me that part of the story, the woman was quieted by an official US Embassy offer to produce for both her and her children US passports, plane tickets to Dallas and a free home there. So long as she never mentioned rape by a DEA agent again. Lengua's sister took them up on the offer and was gone from Iquitos the next day. I hope she got what was promised.
But Lengua didn't like it at all. And because the whole thing started in my bar, he blamed me.
I didn't realize that until about three days after his sister had gone. It was closing time and my small staff had gone home. I'd closed the big wooden windows and even the oversized metal door, but hadn't closed the small door within the large door that I would leave by.
I was behind the bar, having a drink before I went home. Suddenly I saw Lengua's long arms, then head and shoulders, come through the small door. He was drunk and he was high and he stood there just inside the door swinging his arms, his tongue hanging from his mouth. He said that I'd ruined his life. He said that I'd caused his sister to have to leave the country and that I was probably friends with the man who raped her. He said he was going to kill me.
If I could have gotten around him I'd have run for my life. That wasn't an option.
He took a step toward me. "I'm going to kill you now."
My mind raced. I had a bat under the bar, but if I took it out I'd have to use it, and if I was going to use it successfully I'd have to try to kill him. I didn't want to do that because I didn't think he'd actually kill me. But I did think he'd beat me to within an inch of it and didn't want that to happen either.
So I stepped out from behind the bar without the bat and without a plan, praying that something would come to me in the four or five short steps it would take me to reach him.
On maybe the third step, just outside the range of his arms, lightning struck.
"You're going to kill me?" I asked, much too hesitatingly to sound tough.
"You're going to kill me now?" My voice had much more conviction in it.
"Because you ruined my sister is not here anymore..."
"Not why are you going to kill me, Lengua, why are you going to kill me now?"
"Why now? If you kill me now, who will know? What are you going to tell the cargonderos and truck crews tomorrow? That you killed me?"
"So what? Who will believe you? You kill me now, in here, with all the windows closed and no one here and it means nothing. You wait and come and kill me at 7 AM when there are two hundred men her and you'll be famous! You'll still get to kill me, but at least they'll get to watch you do it!"
He looked at me--I thought he might just reach out and grab my throat and do it right then--then began to nod. "Yeah. That's much better. I'll kill you in the morning because you ruined my life. And everyone will see me do it. I'll kill you on the street at seven in the morning."
He paused, said "Don't be late and don't try not to show up because I'll find you," then turned and walked out through the little door in the big door and was gone.
I closed the door behind him, thanked whatever god I believe in for the inspiration, and shivered in fear and relief for a few minutes. Then I headed home.
I was there at the bar by 6:30 AM. The minutes waiting for Lengua to appear were some of the longest in my life. But at 7:02 I stepped into the bar and started working. At 7:10 Lengua appeared and said he was ready to kill me.
I told him it was too late. I had a bar to get open. He should have been there on time. As it was, he'd have to wait until the next morning. He said alright.
And by the next morning he'd forgotten all about it.
About six months later the dock got fixed up a bit and a wooden stairway was put in that ran part of the way down to the port. Shortly after it was completed Lengua, drunk, stepped out of his house, missed the top stair and fell, breaking his neck.
It was a sad end for the strongest guy on the port.

1 comment:

Dr. Grossman said...

Your writing and your stories are just amazing and brilliant. It's an honor to have you as a friend.