by Matthew Scott
Down in the valley, people were getting a tremendous kick out of being quite sad. The boys at the marimba smiled with open faces and full abandon, like the tones ringing out over the park had enough substance to go the whole distance, to paint a whole moment.
But the gaps as each song ended, the tragic story embedded in this tune’s excised lyrics, the mistimed hand in the climax, it was all leaving somebody stinging just a little. It could have been me. Back then I would flinch from a bite and then lean in with heady curiosity to see what bit me. It was how I made all my decisions.
And I suppose that was how I found myself standing behind that beautiful shelf of wooden pipes and tubing, mallet in hand, a grin on my face I wanted to shake but couldn’t. Hair of the dog that bit me.
We wore matching scarves because Agripino worked in a huge cobwebbed warehouse that functioned as a thrift store, collecting the stolen backpacks and sifting through for that which could be passed on for a few Guatemalan quetzales.
He called it money from thin air. When he saw the scarves he saw money in a tip jar—a uniform profit for a uniform presentation, a forced call to unity would surely be reflected in a cohesion in the music. That was the idea, but of course these kinds of things rarely turn out how we plan them in our heads.
Tighter musicianship would have been possible but for me. I suppose I held my own in the audition, but I always felt like a lagger up on the treble end of that ribcage. It separated me, like my white face and Spanish dressed in rags.
There were moments, though, where these things really didn’t seem to matter. I didn’t need to be the backbone up at the treble end, standing by Juan, the heavyset and taciturn bassist. I was a functioning but superfluous third limb standing up there. But for at least a few nights, every part of our body was moving in concert.
It drew people in and they would flutter around and leave solitary bills covered in the dust of the streets. They would make little scrums on the ayuntamiento steps, watching to see any sudden moves, that look in their eyes like windows of plate-glass above a wide smile.
As if they knew what they were seeing. Six ghosts walking down the promenade, scarves dangling like throats unspooled, a taste in the air rich and metallic.
I guess it’s easy to feel that way when you start to wonder about what’s next. How many songs left in the set? My hands are killing me, am I enjoying myself? The list of questions writes itself, and if you live with it too long, the gorge has got to rise.
But there were moments there when I forgot about the questions, or at least forgot to ask them. Brief little spells when I forgot my name and my anticlimaxes and was purely the third arm. Raúl clapped me on the back once and said that this song is just a few minutes long, but we can play it over and over again until we die—if that’s what we want.
I didn’t get him at the time, but thinking back to those days I can see it a little better. It was all so maddeningly brief, but while I was there and embroiled in it, I had no idea what the time was. I forgot the clock was even there and just felt that wonderful ache in my hands.
They played us over the speakers at La Bodegona, the local supermarket. This was evidence of some curious bootlegger lurking in the midst of the previous Saturday night’s crowd. I was perplexed. Why would somebody want to record us?
But Agripino was incensed. He paced the cobblestones behind his parents’ apartment, kicking at the loose ones and snarling at Julieta, the poor girl who brought him the news.
He was a serious guy, with dark wells for eyes, an obvious face. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t mad when I first heard the recording myself. I was soon on my way to mirroring his tantrum, and we tried to pull Raúl and Roberto along with us. Juan, the big guy on the bass, remained silent. Later he followed me home asking me questions. What did it mean? Could we sell the recording?
I went home around 10 pm, leaving Agripino, Raúl and Roberto still spitting dummies out by the pila. I slept easy but evidently they were up all night, Agripino smearing at his nostrils and blinking bleary eyes up at the volcano.
We practised early, normally in public, tip jar out but seldom noticed. The guys were quiet as we packed up, and as I went to grab the tips, Agripino kicked at the jar and sent the few quetzal coins inside flying.
‘What’s up?’ I was a bit angry too now. He didn’t have much to say, just said it didn’t matter. There wasn’t anything in the jar anyway. He was right but I wasn’t going to give him that. ‘Then do something about it, you asshole!’
He didn’t right then. He hurtled off in La Poderosa, the old van of his which we used to transport equipment. He’d pulled out all of the upholstery and laid down some threadbare rugs inside. Now it felt like some musty Econoline cave.
Agripino spent too many nights sleeping in the back, and was woken up some January morning in El Calvario by a kid with a gun. Shouldn’t have left the driver’s window cracked. He’d taken some kicks and I guess they added up. His playing smile had a few cracks and gaps, and Raúl said that he didn’t used to be so quick to anger. But now there wasn’t too much that’d get those shiny teeth bared.
Hearing himself over those speakers was the proverbial straw and from that point on we were propelled by an engine fluid of vitriole, venom, impatience. We practised with a not-before-seen determination, lugged the equipment out to Parque Central on Friday nights to a chorus of muttered threats under Agripino’s breath.
We’d start around 9, once the crowds of out-of-towners had arrived for the weekend and started milling around the park, waiting for something to happen. Most of them were from the city, coming out to Antigua for the relative safety and some put-on idea of the cosmopolitan—and because, I have to concede, it is beautiful.
So one night Agripino said he had a lead. Someone had been talking about recording local bands, and word got around a small town quickly. Agripino’s friend Mynor had filled him with stories of a bootlegger who’d been hanging around the plaza. Our set was cut short by collective impatience and a sudden downpour dispelling the crowd.
Crouched on the steps over warm bottles of Gallo, Agripino told us of some teenager who normally sold bracelets in the park. Recently he’d stumbled on a new racket—lurking by stages with recording equipment under his conspicuously thick jacket, downloading Latin pop hits and burning racks of CDs before shilling them off to bars and restaurants. Something that would only work here.
He used hostel computers and a cheap Claro burner phone—an entrepreneur forged in volcanic ash and budget Chinese consumer electronics.
I went home after watching Raúl fan the flames for a bit. I could see he took some weird pleasure in Agripino’s aggravation. I get bored easily. I suppose that’s why I was there.
I was sitting on my roof smoking and waiting for Volcán de Fuego to join me when La Poderosa hurtled to a stop outside my house. Agripino was at my door in a second, yelling, so I rushed down through the house to catch him before he could wake my roommates.
He was my captain, so I had to follow. We piled into the can and headed off to Ciudad Vieja on Mynor’s word. He was in the van, too, alongside all of the others. We all looked a bit sick. The van stunk like cigarettes and the left wing of judgement.
The kid’s door was unlocked. It swung on complaining hinges to a moonlit courtyard, Agripino’s knife glinting, Juan pushing me from behind until I stumbled on the loose cobbles, Mynor’s eyes wide, a finger raised accusingly to his lips.
He lead. I guess he knew where the kid’s room was.
A dog barked and I turned my head to follow the noise.
Juan pushed me again: Keep going.
We followed the corridor and then there was the dog, straight from the pavement, tiger stripes in dim light. I felt his saliva on my leg.
I kicked it. It just came right back and then Raúl was on it and I heard a whine.
Juan kept pushing me and then we were in the room. It felt so bright after the darkness of the courtyard. I squinted down at the two beds, one to the left and one to the right.
Agripino pulled covers back and there were two young girls cowering and crying and trying to hold each other. They clawed back at the covers and we barely faltered.
I figured the bootlegger kid was in the other bed. He looked very young. He didn’t quite need to shave. His dark calf-eyes were shining with his tears, but I don’t think he was even scared yet. He was going to take a minute or two to get there.
He never got a chance. We grabbed at bags and chests of drawers and spread the little girls’ clothing everywhere. Raúl arrived with a serrated kitchen knife in hand and the girls were wailing. Agripino’s words were distorted by their volume and his blade waved back and forth in the kid’s face.
All I wanted to do was find some tape recorder, some little microphone or something, but before I knew it we were being ushered back into the van and Agripino was cleaning his soiled knife with the cloth in his soiled hands.
I slept soon after, with a couple little bottles of Quetzalteca stabbing at my guts. My head was an ocean of currents that started flowing against one another. I felt like I was going to sleep in a washing machine. But sleep I did.
It was a beautiful day walking down Avenida 6A, clouds flocking to the head of Volcán de Agua. But there was a heat I could feel in every limb. The guys had the equipment all set up when I got there. They were hanging around the marimba and Roberto had his scarf hanging loosely around his neck.
We sounded good that morning. The tip jar was down and the odd passerby gave us a couple of small notes. Agripino was leading like I had never heard him.
In the breaks in the music we shared a few words and Raúl passed around a five-quetzal can of Brahva. No one said anything about the night before. I started to feel a bit light-headed and then practice was over.
A few days later I was sitting with Juan outside a tienda in Jocotenango drinking white rum out of a Coke can. Juan wasn’t a kid who normally had a lot to say, but today he’d reached new heights of shutmouth.
He walked off down the street at some point for a piss and I got a call from Raúl asking what was going on. I told him Juan and I were just hanging out and I heard him exhale a bit. ‘No, hombre,’ he muttered, and as always I thought he was saying ‘nombre’.
‘Has he told you?’
‘Told me what?’
Raúl told me that Mynor had a friend who stocked shelves at La Bodegona who had managed to snake our tape out of the boss’s office and pass it on to Roberto. They had sat down and listened the whole way through the day after our sojourn to Ciudad Vieja. I guess they hadn’t known before. But nobody told me after they found out.
All hands were on deck except for the cabin boy who was always slow to understand the joke: everyone but me had heard the tape that had started the whole mess.
At first they thought the playing was us—it sounded like us. But then some voices rang out between the songs, welcoming tourists. ‘Put a little moneda in the hat, would you?’ It didn’t seem familiar to them because it was our playing; it seemed familiar because we’d seen them a hundred times—the old guy in his black blazer, the crest of his church sewn on the lapel. Four old guys were standing by him in identical garb. They called themselves the Five Caballeros. They had been kind to us in the past.
They were much tighter musically. I don’t think, in retrospect, that anybody would ever have taken the time to surreptitiously record us. The dwindling notes in the tip jar were testament to that.
Juan returned, fly down, can in hand. His eyes were like narrow alleyways between decrepit city blocks. ‘What’s wrong?’
He didn’t reply but took a seat by me on the curb, wiping at his brow with the back of his hand. ‘Ash in the air today.’
A little while later he told me we were going to meet Agripino outside his parents’ place. I imagined my captain trapped there between familial walls, bouncing from end to end of the courtyard like a fly in a jar, a madman locked in the bowels of a ship. With no portholes, he wouldn’t even see the impending coastline. There was no promise of land.
‘Let’s go,’ I said, getting up to flag down a passing tuk-tuk. The volcano rumbled like surf against the walls of a decaying vessel. It sounded so loud from way down in here. It never sounded that loud again.