INTRODUCTION BY IDRA NOVEY
“I had no idea the inequality in Chile was so extreme,” a number of friends in the U.S. said to me after the recent national protests there. Until the protests, nobody outside of Chile was talking about how one percent of its inhabitants take home one third of the income generated in the entire country. The fearless, clear-eyed stories of Paulina Flores offer a portal into what living in that extreme inequality means.
In the gut-wrenching title story, a father drags his daughters along in search of a job listed in the paper. Despite the stultifying heat of Santiago in the summer, the three of them head out on foot to avoid the high cost of public transit, the rising cost of which was an igniting factor in the protests after Chile’s billionaire President, Sebastian Piñera, proposed raising the cost even higher. In “Humiliation,” the father’s long hot walk with his daughters, the false promises of the job listing, leave him feeling “useless and exhausted.” Why are over a million Chileans currently protesting a change to the constitution? “Because I have nothing to lose,” one sixty-year-old father and schoolteacher, Juan Angel, told the Guardian.
The boys in the small port city evoked in Paulina Flores’s story “Talcahuano” have nothing to lose, either. Flores captures each of the three Carrasco brothers with loving detail, the personalities and idiosyncrasies that make them indelible to each other, but quirky, thirteen-year-old Pancho is the leader. The story’s narrator explains that Pancho “had a talent for mixing things together and complicating them.” Next to Pancho, the narrator writes, “everyone else seemed like a fraud.” When Pancho stirs together a plan to steal musical instruments they long to try but can’t afford, the reader knows that something Pancho proposes will lead them all wildly astray.
With each formidable scene, Flores pulls her readers further into the camaraderie of the four teenage boys. The members of the narrator’s family surface as well––his unemployed father, his burnt-out mother, and the various sisters who ignore him. Meanwhile, the boys sit around imagining the instruments on which they might come to make their unrealized music. This story offers an intimation of what their music could be if meaningful structural changes come of the movement now underway.
– Idra Novey
Author of Those Who Knew
The Summer We Tried to Steal the Church Instruments
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by Paulina Flores
We lived in one of the poorest areas of one of the ugliest cities in the country: the Santa Julia neighborhood in Talcahuano. A port town that no one liked: gloomy skies, factory soot that turned everything gray, and air that famously stank of fish. But it didn’t bother us to live in a place people considered ugly; I, at least, felt strangely proud of it. We all—Pancho, Camilo, and Marquito Carrasco, and I—felt strong and satisfied. We enjoyed those days, sitting on the Carrasco brothers’ front stoop and looking out at the shacks that spilled down the hillside toward the sea, making plans and eating watermelon. That was how we spent the whole summer of 1997. We ate watermelon every day. Pancho and Marquito got a bunch of them from a trucker they’d hitched a ride from in Concepción. The trucker said it had been a long time since he’d laughed so hard, and he let them keep as many watermelons as they wanted. That afternoon, between the four of us, we carried fourteen of them to the Carrascos’ house. And when we finished, we sat at the foot of the steps putting half moons of rind over our faces to flash brazen grins at the ruinous place we called home.
I can see us clearly, our happiness on display in our pulpy watermelon smiles. Laughing in the faces of our neighbors, so tired and distraught. Especially that year, when the fishing industry was in crisis and no one had jobs, and unemployed people would wander the streets with servile and defeated expressions, as if they belonged to a vanquished battalion of soldiers.
But my father was the only real military man among them. After fifteen years at the marina, they’d laid him off. But even though it happened at the worst possible moment, it wasn’t the crisis that kept him from finding another job. In a way, it was his own decision. He didn’t want to start over.
Before summer break started, my parents had a sort of fight. I say sort of because, as was usual between them, there was no direct argument, or even—in this case—an exchange of words. This is another clear memory. The family—my parents, my two sisters, and me—sitting around the kitchen table. A bowl of hard bread in the middle, and a mug of watery tea for each of us. Food had been scarce in our house for days. My mother tells us she’d toasted the bread to soften it a little. No one responds. The bread had burned, and now, in addition to being stale, it’s black as coal. We drink our tea in silence. Suddenly, my mother stands up, grabs one of the rolls, and throws it against the wall, screaming. I see the rage in the movement of her arm, as if she were throwing a rock instead of hard bread. And when it hits the floor, it does sound like a rock. My sisters and I stare at the bread on the floor. My mother sits back down like nothing happened, but when she picks up her mug her hands are shaking. As soon as she takes a sip she stands up again, this time to go to her room. We can hear her sobbing. My sisters follow right behind her; they sit beside her on the bed—I can see them from where I’m sitting—and hug her.
My father, who has kept his eyes on his tea throughout the scene, keeps drinking it without a word. And I just sit there in the kitchen with him and drink mine, too. I stay with my father and not with my mother and sisters, but not because I’m taking his side. I’m not on anyone’s side. Back then I participated in family problems as if I were watching a movie. One whose unfortunate story couldn’t affect me beyond the seconds I spent looking at it, and that I could easily leave behind. I wasn’t worried by my father’s silence, or his empty face as he gazed at his tea. I was happy to remain on the sidelines. I was sure I could get along just fine on my own, with my friends.
That’s why I spent almost all day at the Carrascos’ house, where Camilo and Pancho lived. We had the place to ourselves. Their father was a miner in the north—the only dad of our group who had a job—and their mother spent the whole day at the Carrascos’ grandmother’s house with her newborn daughter. Pancho was the younger brother, and my best friend. His barely there neck, broad back, and short legs gave him a rigid look that didn’t correspond in the slightest with the torrent of energy he gave off. Ever since he was little, he’d had a talent for concocting adventures and getting into trouble. Nothing dangerous, just childish mischief.
Pancho and I were both thirteen, but there were seven months between us and I would turn fourteen soon. We lived just a couple blocks apart, and we had spent almost every day of our lives together. The Carrascos’ house was on Pichidegua, which means “Little Mouse,” and I lived on Malal, “Corral.” All the streets in the neighborhood were named in Mapudungun. Years before, Pancho and I and a classmate who was half Mapuche had translated the names of almost all the streets. We harbored the illusion that we were discovering meaningful names for those narrow dirt alleys we lived on—I guess we had the idea that Mapudungun was heroic. In the end they were mostly names of animals common to the region, but we still took a certain pride in our streets, especially if we compared them to the industrial neighborhoods around us, where the streets were numbered.
Talcahuano, “Thundering Sky,” was the only name that lived up to our expectations.
Santa Julia was born from a land occupation in Los Cerros de Talcahuano, and almost all of its houses had been built by their owners with wooden planks and metal sheeting. The Carrascos’ house was one of the biggest, with a second floor, concrete steps leading up to it, and cement walls enclosing the back patio. My house was very small, because my father had built it on the same plot of land as his mother’s house. He’d decided to live in Santa Julia rather than accept one of the houses in the Naval Village, which he had a right to as a marine. It’s not that he was ashamed of being in the navy—he, more than anyone, possessed the pride typical of military men— but he said he didn’t want his children to get used to that environment. Meaning, I thought, that he didn’t want any of us to end up in the navy like him. In addition to our house itself, my father made many of the things inside it, from the furniture to our toys. He liked to work with wood, but he could manage with any kind of trash he found lying around: bottles, aluminum caps, powdered milk cans, spools of thread. He used to say that if he’d had more options, he would have been an engineer. My mother used to try to convince him to start a workshop so he could earn some extra money. But he had always replied, in a serious voice, that he already had a job, and as long as he could feed his family, it was enough.
He already had a job.
Since I was little, I’d been used to people imagining my father’s job was something great. The neighbors, my mother’s family, my teachers, and my classmates all treated him with the utmost re spect. A respect that was born partly of admiration but mostly of fear—I suppose because of the dictatorship—and it imbued his job with an aura of excitement and mystery. Of course, for his family, his work possessed none of that intriguing darkness. We knew ex actly what he did.
Sometimes when I was little I’d go with him to the naval base, and he let me play in a warehouse full of torpedoes while he worked. I entertained myself with a simple game that could keep me captivated all morning long: bounce a plastic ball against the head of the torpedoes. That was it. The torpedo warehouse was the closest his job got to anything warlike or dangerous. As far as I knew, he had never even been out to sea. He’d gone into the service in search of opportunity—something to do—and he ended up working at Talcahuano Naval Base. Some nights as a guard, mostly as a waiter—“steward,” I think was his official title—in the mess hall. He washed and ironed his navy blue uniform himself, and he wore it under his white waiter’s apron with all the haughtiness of an officer.
I never knew why they laid him off. My sisters said it was because of a dumb accident in the mess hall, something about an altercation with a captain. Whatever it was, starting then, the resolute soldier’s gaze that had captivated so many people became blank and indifferent.
It was the middle of January when Pancho announced his plan to us. That morning, Marquito and I were sitting at the foot of the steps. Marquito was the Carrascos’ cousin. He was twelve, the youngest of the group. He lived close by, on Cahuello (“Horse”), and like me he spent all day at his cousins’ house. At first his mother had sent him there so her sister could watch him while she worked, and then he became one of us.
While we waited for the Carrasco brothers to wake up, we were trying to translate the lyrics of the Smiths’ song “The Head master Ritual” into Spanish.
Before the semester had ended, Pancho and I had stolen two English dictionaries from school. The idea was to translate the lyrics of our favorite bands over the summer vacation. Back then we were hooked on the Smiths. There was a music store in Conchester—our nickname for Concepción—and we’d spent so much time there looking and admiring without buying anything, the sales guy had offered to record whatever albums we wanted; we only had to bring him blank cassettes. We whiled away whole afternoons talking to him. He told us that Morrissey had named his band the Smiths because it was one of the most common and unrefined last names in England, and he thought it was time to show the vulgar side of the world. Our eyes shone when we heard stories like this. We wanted to be like Morrissey. We felt just as common and just as superior.
Pancho burst through the front door of his house. “I’ve got it all planned out,” he said.
Marquito and I turned and looked up at him. He was tapping his head with his index finger, repeating, “It’s all right here.” He was just waking up; his hair was tousled and his eyes bloodshot. He sat down beside us and looked straight ahead with that unhinged look he had whenever he was plotting something. Marquito and I put our dictionaries aside and waited for him to tell us what he had in mind, but Pancho said nothing. He just breathed deeply, as if trying to calm his thoughts.
“Where’s Camilo?” he asked suddenly.
“Wasn’t he with you, sleeping in your room?” I asked, and I picked up the dictionary again. I flipped to J to look up the word jealous, from “jealous of youth.”
“What?” asked Pancho, confused. He jumped up and went back inside.
A gust of air whipped up eddies of dust in the street, and I shielded my eyes. The wind never left Talcahuano, no matter the season. Pancho reemerged, this time with wet hair and some slices of watermelon that he handed out.
He took a couple of bites and then declared: “We’re going to steal the church’s instruments. I call dibs on the guitar.”
“I thought the plan was to translate songs,” I said.
“Now we’re going to do both,” he replied, not looking at me as he spat out some watermelon seeds. Pancho always wanted to do everything at once.
“Which church?” asked Marquito.
“Betsabé’s dad’s church,” replied Pancho. He stood up again. He went into the house and put on “The Headmaster Ritual,” the song we were translating. He turned the volume all the way up and started to dance, moving his arms like he was having an epileptic fit, and he took a running leap from inside the house to the street.
Betsabé was the daughter of the pastor of Talcahuano’s evangelical ministry, Blessed to Bless. We had played with her when we were little, until her father really embraced religion and became a pastor. That summer, Pancho had a crush on her. The truth was, we were both trying to woo her, but Pancho was more persistent than I was and he went to the pastor’s meetings—that’s what evangelicals called the kind of masses they held—just so he could see her. He’d gone to a meeting the day before, and that’s where he’d had the idea for the heist.
He told us it was like he’d had a mystical enlightenment while everyone was raising their arms to the sky, shouting Hallelujah and chanting, “He lives, He lives. He returned from the dead. He lives, He lives. We will celebrate.” That was when he started paying attention to the accompanying music played by a band on a small stage to one side of the pastor’s pedestal. According to him, he saw the instruments floating in the air without the musicians who were playing them: guitar, bass, drums, and keyboard. He felt that God was appearing to him and revealing a new mission; basically, God wanted him to steal the instruments. We had decided the year before that God didn’t exist, or that if he did, we weren’t interested in him. But still, it wasn’t strange to hear Pancho say such things. There was something about the evangelicals that just fit with his personality: the ecstacy, the delerium of fanaticism. You could imagine him as a Christian who converted after years of sinning, or as a self-proclaimed prophet who went into mystical trances in the middle of a small town plaza, surrounded by a small group of loyal followers—people like Marquito and me.
When Camilo appeared, Pancho still hadn’t managed to entirely explain his new plan. Camilo was a year older than Pancho. He was short like his brother, but thinner. He didn’t seem any older physically—or in any of his abilities—but he compensated by being more violent. He was prone to fistfights, especially with Pancho. He was wearing only the pair of sweatpants that he never took off, not even to sleep, and he held a slice of breakfast watermelon in his hand. He greeted us with a raise of his eyebrows and sat on the ground a little away from the three of us. He leaned his head grumpily against the wall of the house, as though to make it very clear he wasn’t at all interested in whatever Pancho was plotting.
With Camilo to one side and the three of us at the foot of the steps, we were finally all assembled. I can see us as the inoffensive gang that we were, each of us playing his role. Marquito the kid, Camilo the troublemaker, Pancho the impulsive agitator, full of crazy ideas, and me, the other side of the coin and his faithful sidekick—serene and quiet, thoughtful. We sit there listening to Pancho, who’s so enraptured with his plans, he stumbles over his own words and can’t finish one sentence coherently before launching into another, just like the surf down below us: before one wave can break, the next is on top of it. Marquito and I interrupt him every once in a while to ask him to get to the point.
The most important thing was that the instruments were stored in the church at night. That’s what the bassist had told Pancho when he went up to compliment the band and pump them for information.
At first, Camilo seemed indifferent to Pancho’s plan and his intensity. But then he asked, suspiciously: “And how are we going to divide up the instruments? Dibs on the guitar.”
That interruption led to a fight between the brothers that lasted, intermittently, until well into the afternoon. They finally agreed that Camilo would play drums, Pancho guitar, Marquito bass, and I would play keys. I liked the idea of playing keyboard. It seemed like an instrument that went with my personality—keyboard players tended to be mildmannered and intellectual guys. Although, had I been able to choose, I would have gone with the guitar.
By the end of that day we were all as excited as Pancho about the new plan, and we decided to go over the details in the following days. As I was leaving, I saw that someone had written on the curb with a piece of charcoal:
Give up education as a bad mistake.
Walking home, I felt excited as I thought about what the coming days would hold. I didn’t know how the whole matter of the heist would turn out, but thinking about it filled me with energy and confidence. Above all the uncertainty and adversity I could see ahead, there prevailed a feeling of invulnerability that lifted me up. I imagined us sneaking into the evangelical church at night and emerging triumphant. The goal of stealing the instruments was diffuse—I couldn’t exactly picture myself playing “How Soon Is Now?” on the keyboard. I just saw myself and the Carrascos having a ball with some instruments we would never have been able to pay for.
At home I was hit by the aseptic smell of bleach that had pervaded the house for weeks now. A new smell, and one that contrasted with the familiar scent of damp, burned wood that used to reign. My mother had been obsessed with hygiene and order ever since she’d gotten work cleaning houses for some families in Concepción.
Everything was dark except for my mother’s room, where she and my sisters were talking and laughing. She had never worked outside the house before, and I figured they were happy to get to spend some time together the way they used to. They were listening to a cassette of mine, by Los Tres. I heard how they laughed and sang: Quién es la que viene ahí, tan bonita y tan gentil. I stayed hidden in the dark behind the half-drawn curtain that served as a door. It was strange to see my mother cheerful. She looked especially young, almost like one more sister. My father wasn’t home. I spied on them for a while, and at a certain point my older sister, Carola, looked over to where I was standing. I thought she would call me out and say something mean—for a while now she had been constantly reproaching me, though I didn’t know for what—but instead she pretended not to see me. She started singing louder, almost shouting, and she snapped her fingers while she danced, shimmying in a ridiculously provocative way, making my little sister and my mother laugh and clap in encouragement. I stared at Carola, knowing that she knew I was watching, and for a second, watching her from the shadow, I remembered how much fun we’d had when we were little. I remembered how close we’d been back then, when it was just the two of us. I went to the bedroom then and lay face-up on the bed, and I listened to them sing and laugh until very late, when my father got home.
His key turned in the lock, and in a few seconds the house was silent. He walked straight down the hall. I saw his dark profile outlined in the bedroom doorway, his head high. He still had his marine’s haircut, shaved at the neck and smoothed to one side at the crown, his cheeks shaved close and his mustache meticulously trimmed, though he had nowhere to go. I could almost catch a whiff of his English cologne from my bed. But it was impossible to relate such a fresh smell to his flaccid face and listless expression. He didn’t greet me. Maybe he thought the room was empty or that I was asleep. Maybe he just didn’t want to say anything. I didn’t greet him, either. He took a deep breath and went into the bathroom. Then he left the house again, and I didn’t hear him come back.
The next morning Pancho was waiting for me, sitting on the steps with a pile of books beside him. He looked even more agitated than the day before, and he seemed to have gotten up very early or not slept at all. In an enigmatic tone, he informed me he’d had an amazing idea for the heist, and he’d tell us about it once we were all there. The books he had turned out to be encyclopedias and dictionaries, stolen from who knows where. Marquito arrived soon after with the bag of tobacco; he sat on the steps and started right away to roll a cigarette. Marquito had an innate talent for rolling. We collected the tobacco from cigarette butts we picked up in the street and stashed in newspaper. Marquito also took care of the rolling papers—he stole them from his mother’s purse.
Pancho took the cigarette Marquito handed him and took a deep drag, then said: “This is the last smoke.” He showed it to each of us, then brought it close to his face and looked at it as though saying a last goodbye, and he flicked it away with his thumb and index finger. “We’re going to have to make some sacrifices to get the goods.”
“And you’re going to make us?” Camilo suddenly appeared in the doorway. Pancho replied with a sigh and a condescending smile. “I never said this was going to be easy. But if you’ll just let me explain.” Pancho paused and filled his lungs with air. “We’re going to give up smokes because we’re going to start training for the robbery.” He stood up again and looked at us with his eyes wide, excited. “Because we’re going to train in the ancient Japanese art of espionage and guerrilla war: ninjutsu.”
“Ninjas?” said Camilo, laughing uproariously. “You want us to dress up like ninjas? Like the Ninja Turtles?”
Pancho’s eager smile vanished for an instant.
“Let me finish, Camilo,” he said, annoyed, but he didn’t explain any further. He was quiet for a moment and then he turned to me. “What do you think?” His eyes begged for approval.
“Yeah, what does our little brain think?” said Camilo.
“I don’t know . . . aren’t ninjas supposed to be the bad guys in movies?” I asked doubtfully. Pancho’s eyes lit up and his confident smile returned.
“And how are we supposed to just turn into ninjas from one day to the next?” asked Camilo, which led to another fight between the two brothers. Marquito and I took the chance to roll and smoke the cigarette Pancho had robbed us of.
Pancho had a talent for mixing things together and complicating them. He came up with one idea after another and didn’t follow through on any, although that didn’t take away from the marvelously authentic way he invented his schemes, fascinating in its unreflective spontaneity. It was as if, for Pancho, the world were a place specially designed to astonish him in particular. Even today I can picture him absorbed in thought, his face determined. I suppose Camilo envied him, and that’s why he used to make fun of him. Next to Pancho, everyone else seemed like a fraud.
Camilo sank his fist into Pancho’s ribs and said: “Okay, okay, what’s the plan? ”
Pancho explained that there really wasn’t much information about ninjutsu, so for now we would read what he’d found in some encyclopedias, and then we’d see what we should do next.
“And why don’t we try something else?” asked Marquito. “I took some kung fu classes at school.” Pancho raised his hands to the sky, as if to say “Finally.”
“We’re going to learn the art of ninjutsu because ninjas are like us.” His tone was so ridiculously solemn that even he couldn’t help but burst out laughing. Then he calmed down, hopping in place a couple of times, and looked at us with a seriousness that was comical for being forced. He nodded, as if agreeing or convincing himself of something, and then he couldn’t hold back any longer and burst out laughing again.
After reading what Pancho assigned me—some encyclopedias styled as newspaper facsimiles—I thought I understood what he meant when he said ninjas were “like us.”
Much of the information we managed to collect didn’t refer directly to ninjas, but rather used them as an excuse to talk about samurais; ninjas were reduced to foils, the samurais’ historical enemies. But as far as I understood, ninjutsu techniques and combat strategies had basically evolved from those of samurai warriors, and the main difference lay in the ideals that inspired them. The samurais were a military elite that governed Japan for hundreds of years, and their philosophy was full of values associated with superiority, honor, obligation, and loyalty. Ninjas, on the other hand, were mercenaries who always perpetrated their sabotage and espionage anonymously. Ultimately, all the differences that led them to take opposite paths in the art of war seemed to come down to this: to be a samurai you had to come from a certain caste; that is, you had to have a name and money. The only condition for becoming a ninja was that you had nothing to lose. They were poor, so they accepted all kinds of jobs, honorable or not. I supposed that was why they had so enchanted Pancho. And he was right, ninjas were more like us.
That night, as I was in bed reading about one of the ninjas’ classic modes of operation—infiltrate castles in disguise, hide until the moment is right, kill the guards and set the towers on fire, and then escape—I had a short conversation with Andrea, my little sister. For all I knew, she’d been watching me for hours from the bed next to mine, but I was engrossed in the encyclopedias. The three of us slept in the same room, a small bedroom that barely fit the bunk beds and a twin that my father had built. My sisters took the bunk beds, Carola above and Andrea below. I had the privilege of a construction one hundred percent my own.
“Day after tomorrow we’re going to Grandma’s,” said Andrea as I was underlining the phrase “flee furtively in anonymity.”
My maternal grandmother lived in Tirúa, Arauco, some four hours from Talcahuano. We used to spend vacations at her house in the country. My grandmother and my uncles grew wheat and oats, and their land was bordered by planted forest. When I was younger I liked to wander through the eucalyptus plantations with my mother and sisters. We always ended up losing our way among the thousands of stalks, all identical and planted the same distance apart. Of course, just then I wasn’t thinking about those days in the country; I barely heard what my little sister said.
“Shut up, Andrea!” shouted Carola from the upper bunk. “You’re such a bigmouth!”
“What?” I asked, never taking my eyes from the encyclopedia.
“Stop talking and turn out the light!” Carola protested again.
“Just wait a little!” I shouted. Her attitude with me recently had been exasperating.
Andrea spoke now in a quieter voice: “I said, day after tomorrow we’re going to Grandma’s house.”
“Oh, that’s nice,” I said. “Say hi to everyone for me.”
“You’re gonna stay with Dad,” she said, speaking even more quietly, a little hesitant, as if she was unsure whether what she was saying was a statement or a question.
“Andrea!” my older sister scolded her again.
“I guess,” I said, ignoring Carola’s interruption.
I put the encyclopedia on the floor and turned out the light. As I got used to the darkness I could see that Andrea was still in the same position as before, lying on her side and looking at me. I could see her eyes shining brightly, and they reminded me of that classic image of little animals hidden in the shadowy forest in animated movies. I smiled at her, thinking she could see me, but if she made a gesture in reply I couldn’t see it. I turned over, closed my eyes, and started thinking about ninjas again.
“Your dad was military,” Camilo said. “Doesn’t he have a gun or something we could use?”
“I don’t know,” I replied, uncomfortable. It was true, I didn’t know. I remembered how when I was little I used to play with bullets that didn’t have any gunpowder, but I’d never seen a gun.
“When’ve you ever seen a ninja with a gun?” Pancho asked his brother. “We’re going to use traditional weapons: ropes, chains, a lot of shuriken.”
Shuriken were ninja stars. I told Pancho I knew how to make them. My father had taught me to do something similar with a plastic bottle cap and five nails. We used to spend entire afternoons together, throwing them at tree trunks.
We were walking to the plaza to start our “training” when my mom arrived with my sisters. Each of them was carrying an enormous bag. “You guys moving?” joked Pancho. My mother greeted him affectionately and teased him, asking what he was plotting this time.
Again, I noticed she looked very young. Her black hair was loose. She greeted each of us with a kiss on the cheek, gave me a long hug, and said they were going to my grandma Clara’s. My little sister hung from my neck and told me she would miss me a lot, but Carola grabbed her from behind and pulled her away. “I want to say goodbye too” was her excuse, but she barely brushed my cheek with a quick kiss. She gave Camilo a few little pats on the cheek—he’d always had a crush on her—and she told my mom and sister to hurry up, they were running late.
We used Plaza San Francisco in Santa Julia for training. It was ideal because it had a playground built of metal and wood where we could exercise without anyone bothering us, since the equipment was so old and shabby that almost no kids ever used it. In the end we couldn’t find much more information about ninjutsu; so just like that, with a little knowledge and no sensei, we trained in the things our intuition told us were essential. Supposedly, ninjutsu meant “the art of stealth,” so we focused especially on learning how to slip away, how to make all our movements silent.
We practiced our balance on the teetertotter and climbed whatever was in front of us, from the playground equipment to the walls guarding houses or abandoned factories. Sometimes we used ropes, but most of the time we climbed using just our hands. To improve our speed we ran downhill, jumping any obstacle we came upon. The climbing, running, and jumping, though—those were the easy parts. We ended up covered in scrapes and bruises, but we were overflowing with energy, especially Pancho, who jumped higher than anyone in spite of his short legs.
What was really hard for us was learning to move without making noise. Ninjas were so silent that some castles had floors that were specially designed to squeak at the slightest contact. They were called “nightingale floors,” because the alarm they sounded was similar to that bird’s cry. We split up the day to work on the two skills: in the morning we ran all over, and in the afternoon, once our bodies were more tired and less anxious, we set ourselves to quieting our footsteps.
We cleared out the Carrascos’ bedroom—they slept in the living room during that whole period—to train on the wooden floor. We left our socks on so the cotton would muffle the noise, and we got into a single-file formation: whoever went first gave the orders and moved around the room with full freedom to make noise. The rest had to imitate his movements, but without making the floor boards creak. Like in a game of Simon Says, except we were raising our legs and walking carefully on tiptoe. The first one to make noise lost. Another exercise: we crouched down without leaning on anything, and competed to see who could stay in that position the longest. I almost always won, and Pancho was the first to give up. Last exercise: we blindfolded one person and put him in the middle of the room. He had to catch us while we moved around him, not breathing, in a kind of blindman’s buff. By nightfall we were exhausted, though we always had more energy for the next day’s work.
Some nights, or in free time when we weren’t training, I searched among my father’s things for a gun. I don’t know why, but I wanted to know if he had one or not. I went through his drawers, his clothes, some old suitcases, his toolboxes, even my mother’s things. All I found were pieces of wood, and that was strange for him. He had always been so orderly and meticulous, thanks to his military training. Eventually I realized there were bits of wood scattered all over the house. Different sizes and types, almost all useless: broken, old, or burned. I thought he must have been planning to make something, or maybe he was getting materials together to start the workshop my mother was always insisting he open.
As the days passed, he went on accumulating more and more unworkable wood. The house had been a disaster since my mother and sisters left for my grandmother’s; the only upside was that the smell of bleach had faded. There were also piles of old newspapers with classified ads circled in marker: “company seeks security guards . . . ,” “workers skilled in vibrated concrete . . .” Most of them were for jobs outside Talcahuano, in Santiago or farther north. My mother had bought the newspapers. She’d circled the ads and left them for my father on the table beside his breakfast. She talked about these opportunities in other cities, and how everyone was leaving Talcahuano. Until now, I’d thought my father had just thrown them away. One time he had yelled at my mother that he was never going to leave his house. But here they were now, all those newspapers, like one last chance, though I suppose they held more resignation than hope.
The ever-accumulating garbage in the house was the only sign of life I had from him in those days when I was training for the heist. Neither of us spent much time at home, and I saw him out only once, while I was training in the plaza with the Carrascos. He appeared out of nowhere and started to dig through the trash. He was wearing dirty clothes, his hair was a mess, and he had several days’ growth of beard. The Carrascos didn’t notice, and I didn’t approach him. I don’t think he saw me; he seemed really lost. He pulled a couple of boards and a bottle from the dumpster, put them into a bag, and walked off with his eyes fixed on the ground. I watched him go up the street, hunched over and dejected. He disappeared when he turned a corner, and then I remembered how when I was little I had also watched him disappear around the corner by our house when he left at dawn to go to work. I hadn’t been more than six years old, but when the alarm clock went off at five in the morning, I’d get up with him and keep him company while he ate breakfast and the rest of the family slept. When he finished, he got up from his chair and I imitated him, then I brought him his military coat and briefcase and followed him to the door. He’d give me a few pats on the head and leave. I would stay in the doorway and watch him walk off in the fog, and I stayed there even after he disappeared from my sight. I didn’t want him to go. And sometimes, after a few minutes, I’d see him return, rushed and a little annoyed. His rough hand would take mine, firmly but tenderly, and I would go with him to work.
As for the incredible acrobatics and fighting techniques that ninjas in the movies employed, we decided, after several arguments— especially with Camilo—that we wouldn’t spend too much of our training time on them. Not because of how difficult they were, but because we didn’t expect to have anyone to use them with, since according to Pancho there were no guards at the church.
After three weeks we’d acquired a certain dexterity, though surely nothing compared with real ninjas. At first glance our train ing sessions must have seemed poor and unorthodox. But I feel sure that we really did come close to the spirit, the idea that the fundamental thing was to be practical, to focus on the element that could save your life.
“TECHNIQUES ARE USELESS, INTUITION IS EVELYTING,” Pancho would say when he got bored practicing in his room. “EVELYTING IS A WEAPON,” Camilo would say, kicking.
Those were quotes from Masaaki Hatsumi, a legendary master ninja we had been able to find a little more information about.
What was an unquestionable fact was that we were prepared to flee without being caught. We were faster and more agile than when we’d started out. Still, in case anyone gave chase in cars, we made some spikes from the nails left over from our shuriken that we could throw down to puncture tires.
The plan was ultimately laid out as follows: we had one hour, between three and four in the morning, to break into the church and get the instruments out. Pancho would climb the wall and enter through one of the upper windows (framed by metal that was so old and rusty it never closed), some three or four meters up. Pancho’s firsthand reconnaissance told us the side door was locked with a padlock; he would use a bolt cutter to break it. Once that entrance was breached, the rest of us would come into play: we’d load up the instruments and get out as quickly and silently as possible. We would escape through the side door that let out onto El Piñón—a dark hill covered with pine forest, where the route back would be longer but safer. Once we were in the woods we’d divide up the booty. The most complicated part of the plan was transporting all the instruments in a single trip without any noise, especially the drums, which were by nature unwieldy and loud. Pancho and I sketched out on a piece of paper how we would do it: Camilo would strap the bass drum to his back with the tom-toms still attached, like a backpack, and he’d carry it like one; I would carry the snare and the floor tom tied to my back and the cymbals on my chest; Marquito would carry the keyboard on his back; Pancho would carry the bass and the guitar across his body in front and back. Camilo complained that his brother had gotten the easiest part, and Pancho argued that he had already done plenty of work planning the whole thing out. We would cover the instruments with the enormous dresses that the Carrascos’ mom used when she was pregnant. If there was time and space, we’d grab some cables and music stands. The amps were a no-go; we’d have to figure out how to get our hands on some smaller ones later.
We all thought it was an impeccable plan. At least like that, sketched out on paper, each of us was a ninja, instruments strapped across our backs instead of katanas.
The day of the heist, we felt the weight of the historic, dangerous moment hanging over us. It didn’t make sense to train anymore, and plus, just like athletes, we decided it was better for our bodies to be well rested. So what we did was use the morning to wash our sweat suits and lay them in the sun to dry, and then watch the afternoon pass, sitting at the foot of the steps and eating the last of the watermelon. Camilo asked Marquito to get the tobacco so he could smoke a cigarette. He admitted he was just too nervous, and even though Pancho scolded him for his lack of commitment, we all ended up smoking. I told them how that image of ninjas dressed in black was a myth. They used navy blue, because black shone in the darkness. Marquito said that meant our school sweat suits were perfect for this mission.
“Anyway, they’re the only thing we have,” added Pancho, blowing smoke. We all agreed, laughing.
Since neither Marquito nor I have ski masks like the Carrascos’, we agree to use black shirts as hoods. The clock in the Carrascos’ kitchen says 10:30 p.m., and we’ve just realized there are a couple of tools we need that their father doesn’t have. They aren’t essential for the mission, but we can’t risk it. I say I think I’ve seen them in my father’s toolbox, and we decide Pancho will go with me to get them; when we return, all of us will go to keep watch at the church. We’ll start the operation at 3:00 sharp.
The street is empty, and Pancho doesn’t stop talking the whole way to my house. He’s more excited then ever. He asks me, over and over, if I understand what we are about to do. “Do you get it? Do you get it? ” he repeats, almost shouting. He walks fast, with determination, his eyes staring. But then he looks me straight in the eyes for a second and tells me that we’re going to strike big now, and after we do, nothing will stop us, we’ll be invincible. I look at him and reply with the same sureness that yes, I do get it, we’re really going to do it, it’s already practically done. We are invincible.
My house is dark when we arrive, and the first thing we see inside is my father stretched out on the sofa. His position gives the impression that nothing could wake him up. We also see a puddle of vomit on the floor. Pancho makes a gesture like he’s drinking from a bottle, and then cocks his head to the side, sticks out his tongue, and rolls his eyes back, imitating my father’s drunken face. I tell him to go back to the patio, where the tools are. Once he’s gone, I approach my father. I observe his body splayed out on the sofa, my grandmother’s old sofa that he had repaired himself using a couple of nails and then stuffed with wool. His face—in contrast to the room, so full of newspapers, wood, and garbage—is empty, expressionless. He looks old, old and useless. Looking down at him lit by the faint light that makes it through the curtains, I think how low he has fallen, and how different I am. And all that time I look at him, and all those thoughts and all that revelatory silence, makes it even more incredible and humiliating that I haven’t realized what is happening, and that it’s Pancho who, after trying to play a joke on him with the wrenches he’d gone to find, finally shouts that my father isn’t breathing.
Days later, Pancho told me that he’d never run so fast, and that in the end all that training hadn’t been for nothing. I hadn’t even finished shouting for him to go for help when he jumped up and ran out of the house and up the hill. Of course, nothing that had to do with training, with our plan, with ninjas, or with Pancho himself made sense to me any longer.
It wasn’t his breathing—or lack thereof—that made me throw myself on my father and shake him, trying to bring him back to himself. It was the smell, the nauseating smell he was giving off. Not exactly of rot, but a strange blend of sterility and fermentation. Pancho had been mistaken, my father was breathing. But I didn’t have to bring my ear to his nose to realize something was very wrong. It was the stench, the stench that had been emanating from him the whole time I’d been standing there and that I perceived only when Pancho started screaming. The stench led me to stick my trembling fingers into his mouth to make him vomit. I was shaking, my hands and my knees were trembling. My whole body was convulsing in fear as with one hand I tried to make him retch and with the other I hit his stomach so he would spit out more of that bilious liquid that had been waiting for us from the start.
Bleach. My father had swallowed bleach. A liter and a half, a CocaCola bottle full of the bleach that a van came by to sell every week. There were cases of people who died from ingesting bleach, although it was almost always children who drank it by accident. Maybe my father thought he would be as susceptible as a child and that he could die that way. Or maybe it was the only thing he had at hand. It turned out he didn’t have a gun. No, he didn’t think about any of that. He thought only about my mother. He wanted to get her attention. He thought: I’m going to send her a message, I’m going to swallow her job, her stupid aspirations. Her ambition. I’m going to gulp them down and let them kill me with every sip.
Because after I waited hours in the emergency room to see him, the only thing he said was “Call Carmen.” After I tried to tell him not to worry, that she was fine, summering at my grandmother’s house, he said to me again, more harshly:
“Call your mother.”
And then it was as if I understood everything all at once. I didn’t call anyone, and I told the Carrascos’ mother and Pancho, who kept me company in the hospital with the others, that I would rather walk home alone.
But I didn’t go straight home. I walked along the water in my ninja sweat suit, and while I did, I imagined my mother far away, lost in the eucalyptus forest, and I knew she had left us. My mother was gone. She’d left me alone in the house, abandoned to my fate alongside a moribund man. They all knew it but me. Even my little sister knew and she’d tried to tell me, but I didn’t listen.
I reached the port and sat on the stairs to watch some sailors getting ready to embark. Years before, Pancho and I used to come here at dawn to watch the fishing boats set out. We dreamed of being merchant marines. We’d looked at the sailors’ faces, stiffened by the cold and laced with wrinkles, troubled and anxious as they went about their tasks before shoving off. We thought we recognized the faces of strong, tough men. Men who weren’t afraid of anything. But now, at daybreak and with the black sea behind them, the only thing I could see reflected in those sailors’ faces was sadness. A dry sadness that drove into their bones as deeply as the cold on the high seas. My whole life I’d thought that Talcahuano was a tough place, but the truth was, it was just sad. And then I thought of my father in the hospital bed, and I knew why he’d done what he had done. I could finally get a fix on him: my father was a wretched man, but he could still do damage. He could wound, even if it wasn’t his intention. I should have known it sooner, but I didn’t.
When my mother and my sisters arrived several days later, the house was just as they had left it. I had thrown out the wood and the newspapers and mopped up the vomit. Cleaned the house. That was the first thing I ever did for myself, for me. And maybe I did it in the hopes that my luck would change. Those first days I entered a state of numbness, and I became convinced that I had no choice but to think only of myself. It was as if the garbage my father had collected suddenly struck me as dangerous, as if it had me cornered, as if it could take me down with it and I wouldn’t even notice. All the garbage, and the poverty, and the afternoons with the Carrascos— it all suddenly became threatening. Not because of the mission; I wasn’t afraid we would start robbing banks. Most likely we would have gone on being a harmless gang, forever sitting at the foot of the stairs, or on some corner once we were older, dreaming up plans that would never come to fruition. Maybe that was precisely what made them threatening. I thought about how stupid I’d been all that time with the Carrascos, playing and bragging about how sly we were, without understanding what was really happening around us. And then the light that made Pancho shine for being so astonishingly him was extinguished, leaving the shadow of a stubborn, foolish, and insignificant boy.
The summer ended quickly, and winter came and brought more wind, plus rain and chimney smoke. I turned fourteen. My mother and sisters came back to the house for a while. My mother explained her version of events to me and promised me things would get better, that we would all start over again together, but I knew it couldn’t be like that, and in any case I didn’t care. When a person lives through intense experiences, he has the illusion of understanding many things. I thought I understood how life worked. When I finished cleaning the house I was exhausted, and I thought that I should keep going that way from then on: tire myself out and self-impose obligations in order to get ahead. I thought that would keep me safe. I wasn’t going to drift like my father, or fearfully wonder what would become of me. I was going to fight, to sniff out threats on the wind and build a life of my own. Who knows what fate awaited me alongside the Carrascos; I never found out. I left Talcahuano as soon as I could, first to work in the north with the Carrascos’ father—my last link to Pancho—and then in Santiago. I got rid of my family and the only friends I had. And I went into debt to study, and I worked twelve hours a day and spent two more riding buses, and I did all the things that people do to achieve a certain wellbeing, and I got tired, I became a tired person and I lived in Renca, in Recoleta, and in Quilicura, without ever knowing what the names of all those places meant.