The South |


by Vanessa Blakeslee

Excerpted from the novel, Juventud, available now from Curbside Splendor here.

The evening began politely enough. Having spent nearly every afternoon with Manuel for more than a week, his meeting my father felt like a necessary formality and inevitable next step. We sat in the living room, Manuel and Papi discussing Andrés Segovia and other famous guitarists. Papi shoved Manuel’s album into the player, and I reclined, listening. “A rare talent you’ve got,” Papi said. He nodded and pointed at Manuel with the CD case. “You’d better pursue it.”

Manuel stood squarely, scratched his head. “That’s a great compliment, coming from such a classical aficionado as you, sir. I certainly intend to.” He and I exchanged a heartened look.

Luis rapped at the sliding door. Papi invited him to eat with us, and I shuffled the CDs in the rack to hide my grimace. When Vincente and Guillermo, who oversaw the coffee farm, horses, and alpaca station, joined us for meals, they spoke little. When they did, the conversation revolved around livestock and the weather. They kept to themselves and their quarters, away from our house. But Luis left his shirt open in the fields with his hairy stomach bulging over his pants. Tonight Papi ordered wine to be brought up from the cellar. Both their tongues would be loose. Worse, Inez plunked down sopa de guineo—pork, potato and guineo infused with the savory smells of cilantro and onion, which I liked. But hardly the exotic dish I’d hoped for. Maybe this was her way of voicing disapproval over a boy; by her brisk demeanor as she served, I couldn’t tell. Surely my mother would not have let me down.

Luis rambled for most of dinner about the guerrillas in the southern mountain passes. They were running more peasants from villages—extended families, their whole lives, from pots and pans to sacks of rice, strapped to the backs of donkeys, begging for work. “But I don’t have the time to deal with it,” he said. “Eventually, it gets easier to turn them away.” He addressed Papi, ignoring Manuel and me.

“Easier?” Manuel asked. “What happens to them?”

Luis took a gulp of wine and shrugged. “If I give jobs to ten men, there’re ten more behind them, and a dozen more down the road besides, on and on. They can’t read or write, can’t get better jobs in the cities, so they beg out here. Am I Mother Teresa?”

I pushed at the steaming guineo on my plate. The boy who had scarfed down the plantains had told the same story of carnage in the south.

“That’s the trouble with the poor,” Papi said. He removed two cigars from the humidor, handed one to Luis. The lid clapped shut. “The poor breed more poor, while the rich feed them.”

“True,” Luis said, and lit the cigars.

“It’s become more desperate recently, no doubt.” Manuel petted the mutts under the table. “Maybe even the dogs are affected.” He cracked a grin. Papi and Luis chuckled, eyes dancing over their cigars as they puffed. Manuel said, “We all must choose where we place our energies, sooner than later. Understand we’re contributing to the good. If we’re not, well—”

“Contribute to the good, exactly,” Papi interrupted. “Each man must do as he sees fit.” He reached in the humidor, offered Manuel a cigar.

“No thanks.” Manuel waved him off. “I don’t know that contributions can, or should be, so narrowly defined. The individual tends to underestimate his influence.”

“How so? You know, it’s not often we have a bright young mind as our guest.”

“Oh, I don’t know that you want to hear all the intricacies of my stance. A rather heavy subject for such a lovely night, don’t you think? Manuel patted my arm.

“Nonsense. This is a welcoming home. I’m eager to hear your thoughts—what young people are up to these days, I have no idea.” Papi sat back, crosslegged, and waited.

“Well,” Manuel said, and straightened his shoulders. “I believe the lines between good and evil are clear. And for all its flaws, the Church is trying to do it right.”

“Really?” Papi said, sounding genuinely surprised. “Please, go on.” “Now, I know what you may be thinking. Are the churches in Europe

filled with gold, much of it robbed from this part of the world? Has the Vatican harbored child molesters? Sadly, yes. But that is precisely the point. Evil springs up anywhere it can, if you’re not on guard. A soul divided ends up turning black.”

“You really think the lines are that clear?” Papi said, and tugged over his finished plate. “Watch.” He picked up a knife, drew a line through the mound of rice on the edge. “In reality, some grains fall to one side, some to the other.”

“Yes, but we aren’t grains of rice,” Manuel said. “We have a conscience. A choice.”

“Pretty young for all this, aren’t you?” Luis asked with a grunt.

“I admire your ideals.” Papi pushed the plate aside, amusement flickering in his eyes. “And I am—that is, we are,” he glanced at Luis, who gave a curt nod, “—men who prefer only to deal in reality. But I’m afraid the reality is more difficult. Is there a war between good and evil? Of course, anywhere you go. Only in some places the choices are limited, and the battles bloodier. Like Colombia. Those who have the means must leave while they can. Go somewhere less chaotic where they can make a difference. For their own good and this country’s future.” He called for Inez to bring coffee.

“Then why don’t you leave, if it’s that simple?” Manuel asked.

The end of Papi’s cigar blazed sunset-orange. “I have obligations,” he said, gesturing toward the window and fields beyond. “For Mercedes, it’s different. She’s going overseas to finish school, maybe as soon as August. My idea of social justice is running this farm, providing jobs. If I were to leave, I would never come back.”

“Neither would Mercedes.”

“She can choose to come back whenever she likes, later on—if things stabilize.”

Finally, I cut in. “You speak as if I’m not here,” I said, my voice louder than I expected. “This is my home, too. What if I don’t want to leave?” Inez set down a tray and poured us each tiny cups of tinto. I spilled some sugar as I dumped it in my cup, the espresso black and scalding.

“I’m afraid that doesn’t matter, princesa. You’re fifteen. If something happened to you, I’d lose my mind.” Papi breathed heavily, nostrils flaring. “Though with your ingratitude, I sometimes wonder why I bother.” He glanced from me to Manuel. “What do you think, eh?”

“I want the best future for Mercedes, if she wants it, of course,” Manuel said.

“That’s good. He’s a bright boy, gets the point,” Papi said. “The sooner, the better.”

Scowling, I shrank in my seat, skin prickling at the tenor of their conversation. Why was I being discussed so abstractly? And why was Papi being so callous?

“Well, the obvious thing to do is leave,” Manuel said, stirring his tinto. “It’s easy. Colombia is full of men who make messes like children and refuse to clean up, just walk away without acknowledging their contribution. But I guess you don’t know any of these men, Diego?” He tapped his spoon on the cup’s edge before setting it down.

Luis dropped his cigar in the ashtray. Papi’s mouth twisted. “Just what are you accusing me of ?” he said, his voice even, restrained. “Did you come here for my daughter or just to insult me?”

“Not at all,” Manuel said. He blanched. “I’m just bringing up the point that many play both sides.”

Papi raised his cigar and brought it a few inches away from Manuel’s face. “May I offer you something?”

“Whatever you like,” Manuel said quietly. “As you said, this is your home.” He lifted his cup, drank.

Papi spoke so softly I could barely hear him. “Where’s your fucking farm, eh? What do you know about having forty, fifty, a hundred workers and their families dependent on you?”

“Nothing, sir. I only meant—”

“What’s that?” Papi cried. “Please, shut your mouth and save your dignity. The only thing I can’t stand more than a witch-hunt is a lie.”

Manuel finished his tinto in one gulp and stood up. “It’s excellent coffee. I’ve got a long ride, I’d best be going, sir. Thank you very much.” He breezed out without shaking hands.

Trembling, I jumped up and darted after him.

Manuel had parked his motorcycle just inside the gate at the end of the steep driveway. At the foot of the mountain, the shadowy bodies of the alpacas shone pale in the moonlight. A few raised their heads at our approach. “I guess I won’t be back here any time soon,” he said. He started up the bike, and it chugged and huffed like an irritated boar between us. “Which is fine. The less I see of your father, the better.”

“We can still see one another,” I said, grabbing his arm. “In Cali.”

He peered over my shoulder at the house. “Pay attention to the little things more, Mercedes. There’s a lot about your father that you don’t realize. You’re too close to see it.”

“Why do you say that? You don’t have proof.”

He drew me closer and into a long kiss. “You know Ana’s church, La Maria, in the Ciudad Jardín? Sunday evenings, after mass, my brother Emilio leads a meeting. It’s up to you, of course. But he has become somewhat of an expert on cartel and guerilla connections. If it’s proof you want, he may have it. Goodnight.” The guard opened the gate. The bike’s lone headlight flew down the deserted road, as if Manuel couldn’t wait to put a great distance between him and the hacienda. I swallowed hard, my mouth bitter.