Broke Down in the Desert with a Box of Bibles
An excerpt from The Wind That Lays Waste, by Argentinian author Selva Almada
Broke Down in the Desert with a Box of Bibles
The Wind That Lays Waste
The mechanic coughed and spat out a gob of phlegm.
“My lungs are shot,” he said, wiping his mouth with his hand and bending down again under the open hood.
The owner of the car mopped his brow with a handkerchief and bent down too so their heads were side by side. He adjusted his wire-rimmed spectacles and contemplated the jumble of hot metal parts. Then he looked at the mechanic inquiringly.
“Can you fix it?”
“I reckon so.”
“How long will it take?”
The mechanic straightened up—he was almost a foot taller—and looked at the sky. It was getting on for midday.
“End of the afternoon, I reckon.”
“We’ll have to wait here.”
“If you like. It’s all pretty basic here, as you can see.”
“We’d rather wait. Maybe you’ll be done early, with God’s help.” The mechanic shrugged and took a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket. He offered one to the car’s owner.
“No, no, I quit years ago, thank God. If you don’t mind me saying so, you should too . . .”
“The soda machine isn’t working, but there should be some cans in the fridge, if you’re thirsty.”
“Tell the young lady to get out of the car. She’s going to roast in there.”
“What was your name?”
“Brauer. El Gringo Brauer. And that’s Tapioca, my assistant.”
“I’m Reverend Pearson.”
They shook hands.
“I’ve got a few things to do before I can start work on your car.”
“Go ahead, please. Don’t mind us. God bless you.”
The Reverend went around to the back of the car where his daughter, Leni, was sulking in the tiny space left by the boxes full of Bibles and the piles of magazines on the seats and the floor. He tapped on the window. Leni looked at him through the dusty glass. He tried the handle, but she had locked the door. He gestured to tell her to wind the window down. She lowered it an inch or two.
“It’s going to take a while to fix. Get out, Leni. We’ll have a cool drink.”
“I’m fine here.”
“It’s very hot, sweetheart. You’re going to get heatstroke.”
Leni wound up the window again.
The Reverend opened the passenger door, reached in to unlock the back door, and pulled it open.
“Elena, get out.”
He held on to the door until she obeyed. And as soon as she was out of the way, he slammed it shut.
The girl rearranged her skirt, which was sticky with sweat, and looked at the mechanic, who acknowledged her with a nod. A boy who must have been about her age, sixteen, was watching them, wide-eyed.
Her father introduced the older man as Mr. Brauer. He was very tall, with a red mustache like a horseshoe that came down almost to his chin; he was wearing a pair of oily jeans and a shirt that was open, exposing his chest, but tucked in. He would have been over fifty, but there was something youthful about him; it must have been the mustache and the long hair, hanging down to his collar. The boy was wearing old jeans too, patched but clean, and a faded T-shirt and sandals. His straight, jet-black hair had been neatly cut, and he looked like he hadn’t started shaving. Both of them were thin, but they had the sinewy bodies of those accustomed to the use of brute force.
Fifty yards away stood the makeshift building that served as gas station, garage, and home: a single room of bare bricks beyond the old pump, with one door and one window. In front of it, at an angle, a kind of porch, with an awning made of branches and reeds, which shaded a small table, a stack of plastic chairs, and the soda machine. A dog was sleeping in the dirt under the table. When it heard them approach, it opened one yellow eye and swished its tail on the ground without getting up.
“Give them something to drink,” said Brauer to the boy, who took two chairs from the stack and wiped them with a rag so that they could sit down.
“What do you want, sweetheart?”
“A glass of water’s fine for me. The biggest one you have, son,” said the Reverend as he sat down.
The boy stepped through the curtain of plastic strips and disappeared inside.
“The car will be ready by the end of the afternoon, God willing,” said the Reverend, mopping his brow again.
“And if he’s not willing?” Leni replied, putting on the earphones of the Walkman that was permanently attached to her belt. She hit Play, and her head filled with music.
A big heap of scrap reared beside the house, extending almost to the shoulder of the road: panels, bits of agricultural machinery, wheel rims, piles of tires; a real cemetery of chassis, axles, and twisted bits of metal, immobilized forever under the scorching sun.
The car had broken down as they were leaving Gato Colorado. Leni was amused by the name, and especially by the two cement cats, painted bright red, sitting on two pillars at the entrance to the town, which was on the border between the provinces of Santa Fe and Chaco.
The bad noises had begun much earlier, as they were coming in to Tostado, where they had spent the night in a small hotel. Leni said they should get it checked before setting off again, but the Reverend paid no attention.
“The car won’t let us down. The good Lord wouldn’t allow it.”
Leni, who had been driving since she was ten and took turns at the wheel with her father, knew when a noise was just a noise and when it was a warning signal.
“We better get a mechanic to take a look before we leave,” she insisted as they drank coffee early that morning in a bar. “We could ask here if they know someone who’s good and doesn’t charge too much.”
“If we take it to a garage, they’ll make us wait the whole day.We have to have faith. When has this car ever broken down, eh?”
Leni kept quiet. They always ended up doing what her father wanted, or, as he saw it, what God expected of them.
When they’d been on the road for two hours, the car gave one last snort and stopped. The Reverend tried to start it again, but it was no use. Leni looked through the bug-spotted windshield at the road stretching away and said, without turning, but in a clear and firm voice:
“I told you so, Father.”
Pearson got out of the car, took off his jacket, and put it on the back of the seat. He shut the door, rolled up his sleeves, went around to the front, and opened the hood. A jet of smoke made him cough.
All Leni could see now was the hood with its chrome plating and smoke or steam coming out the sides. Then her father walked past; she heard him open the trunk and shift the suitcases.Two big, battered suitcases, secured with leather straps, which held all their belongings. In his: six shirts, three suits, an overcoat, undershirts, socks, underwear, another pair of shoes. In hers: three shirts, three skirts, two dresses, a coat, underwear, another pair of shoes. The Reverend slammed the trunk shut again.
Leni got out. The sun was scorching, and it was only nine in the morning. She undid the top two buttons of her shirt, walked around the car, and found her father putting down the triangles.She looked at the triangles and the deserted road. Between Tostado and where they were, they hadn’t seen a single car.
“Any moment now a Good Samaritan will come along,” said the Reverend, with his hands on his hips and a smile on his face, oozing faith.
She looked at him.
“The good Lord won’t leave us stranded here,” he said, rubbing his lower back, ruined by all those years of driving.
Leni thought that if one fine day the good Lord actually came down from the Kingdom of Heaven to attend to the Reverend’s mechanical mishaps, her father would be more stunned than anyone. He’d fall on his ass. And piss himself too.
She took a few steps on the road, which was full of cracks and potholes. Her heels clicked on the concrete.
It was a place that seemed to have been completely forsaken by humans. Her gaze ranged over the stunted, dry, twisted trees and the bristly grass in the fields. From the very first day ofCreation, God too had forsaken that place. But she was used to it. She’d spent her whole life in places like that.
“Don’t go far,” her father called out.
Leni lifted an arm to indicate that she had heard him.
“And get off the road; if someone comes, there could be an accident.”
Leni laughed to herself. Yeah, or a hare might run her down.
She turned her Walkman on and tried to find a station. Nothing. Only aimless static on the air. Steady white noise. After a while she came back and leaned on the trunk, beside her father.
“Get in the car. This sun is fierce,” said the Reverend.
She glanced across at him. He looked a bit downhearted. “Someone will come, Father.”
“Yes, of course. We must have faith. It’s not a very busy road.”
“I don’t know. I saw a pair of guinea pigs up there. They went flying over the asphalt so they wouldn’t burn their paws.” Leni laughed, and so did the Reverend.
“Ah, my girl. Jesus has blessed me,” he said, and tapped her on the cheek.
This meant that he was very glad to have her with him, thought Leni, but he could never say it like that, straight out: he always had to get Jesus in there, between them. At another moment, that display of diluted affection would have irritated her; but her father seemed vulnerable now, and she felt a little sorry for him. She knew that although he wouldn’t admit it, he was ashamed of having ignored her advice. He was like a child who has messed up.
“How did it go again, that little verse about the Devil at siesta time?”
“What? A Bible verse?”
“No, just a verse, a little poem. What was it? Wait. It was funny.”
“Elena, you shouldn’t speak lightly of the Devil.”
“Shhh. Wait, it’s on the tip of my tongue. Okay, here we go. ‘Setting his traps / he’s gonna catch you / casting his line / he’s gonna hook you / loading his gun / he’s gonna hunt you / it’s Satan, it’s Satan, it’s Satan.’” Leni burst out laughing. “There’s more, but I forget.”
“Elena, you turn everything into a joke. But the Devil is no laughing matter.”
“It’s just a song.”
“Not one I know.”
“But I used to sing it all the time when I was little.”
“That’s enough, Elena. You’ll make up anything to torment me.”
Leni shook her head. She wasn’t making it up. That song existed. Of course it did. Then, suddenly, she remembered: she was sitting in the back seat of the car with her mother, in the parking lot of a service station; they were reciting the song and tapping their palms together like playmates, having some fun while the Reverend was in the bathroom.
“Look. There. Praise be to God,” cried the Reverend and took two strides to the middle of the road, where he stood waving his arms at the bright, glinting point approaching quickly through the heat haze rising off the boiling asphalt.
The truck braked and pulled up sharply beside the Reverend. It was red, with a chrome bumper and tinted windows. The driver lowered the window on the passenger side and the sound of the cassette player burst out like an explosion; the shock wave of a cumbia forced the Reverend to take a step back.
The man leaned out and smiled and said something they couldn’t hear. He disappeared back into the cool cabin, hit a button, and the music stopped. Then he reappeared. He was wearing reflective sunglasses; his skin was tanned, and he hadn’t shaved for a few days.
“What’s up, bud?”
The Reverend rested his hands on the window and leaned in to reply, still dazed by the music.
“Our car broke down.”
The man got out the other side. The work clothes he was wearing contrasted with the sparkling, brand-new vehicle. He approached the car and had a look under the hood, which was still propped open.
“If you like, I can tow you to the Gringo’s place.”
“We’re not from around here.”
“Gringo Brauer has a garage a few miles away. He’ll be able to fix it for sure. I’d take you into town, but on a Saturday, with this heat, it’d be hard to find anyone who could help you. They’ve all gone to Paso de la Patria or the Bermejito to cool off a bit. Me too: I’m going home to get my reel, pick up a few pals, and good luck to anyone who wants me before Monday.” The man laughed.
“Well, if you don’t mind.”
“Of course not, bud. I’m not going to leave you out here in the middle of nowhere, on foot. Not even the spirits are out in this heat.” He climbed back into his truck and drove it to the front of the car. Then he got out, took a steel cable from the back, and attached the car’s bumper to his tow bar.
“Let’s go, bud. In you get; it’s good and cool with the air-con.”
The Reverend sat in the middle; Leni sat next to the door. Everything smelled of leather and those little perfumed pine trees.
“Passing through?” asked the driver.
“We’re going to see an old friend,” said the Reverend.
“Well, then, welcome to hell.”
About the Translator
Chris Andrews was born in Newcastle, Australia, in 1962. He has translated books by Roberto Bolaño and César Aira, among others. He teaches at the University of Western Sydney, where he is a member of the Writing and Society Research Center.