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this edition includes a glossary of slang Words, sPanish terMs and idioMs in the last Page


emilio di tata roitberg

el oso the darKer side of Patagonia


all rights reserved. no part of this book may be used or reproduced by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping or by any information storage retrieval system without the written permission of the publisher except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. first english translation — claire haworth. spanish version, copyright © 1998, 2007, english version, copyright © 2011 by editorial letras de la Patagonia. Printed in argentina iMPreso en la argentina

isBn 978-987-23911-4-0 Letras de la Patagonia patagonia42@hotmail.com Facebook: Emilio Di Tata Roitberg


chubby andrés doesn’t understand why the old guy in the pharmacy seems so scared to see him. he had just entered the place, taken his number and stood waiting. When the old man called his number he approached the counter and handed him his ticket. “a bottle of Mylanta, please.” the chemist stared at him as if trying to remember where he knew him from. he must have realised at once, ‘cause his mouse-like eyes opened wide and he began to stutter: “yes, yes, straight away,” he said, and disappeared behind the screen. there was a time when andrés used to go to this 5


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pharmacy with Juancito, the shoe repairs apprentice, and they got whatever they fancied: temazepam, rohypnol, dXM syrup… “anything else boys?” santarelli was a cool old bloke, he was always cracking jokes and never asked you for a prescription. he’d just call you to one side and chuck everything in a paper bag. sure he’d sting you with the price —at least three times the going rate— but they didn’t care. Money was no object back then. “no fear, santa is here,” the old man would say smiling. this was his catch phrase. he repeated it all the time, he even had it printed on a sign next to his diploma. now he appears again from behind the screen with a white bottle in his hands. “one or two teaspoonfuls between meals,” he says while packing it. he appears nervous, trying to compose his professional demeanor again, although his hands are trembling as he tries to tape up the bag. chubby pays and leaves. from the pavement he steals a final glance inside the shop and finds the 6


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pharmacist still staring at him. only when he breaks eye contact with andrés does he notice the woman standing in front of him, trying hard to get his attention.

***

.

everyone said that andrés was like a bear. that’s what they called him at home and around the neighbourhood: El Oso1. at school he had always been the biggest in the class. he repeated 4th year twice and in the 5th grade photo you could see he was a head taller than the teacher. at fourteen he started working in his brother Pascual’s butcher’s shop, where he would carry half a cow’s carcass on each shoulder without batting an eyelid. But, at the same time, he was easily fooled and was the butt of many jokes. so when he later ended up locked up for armed robbery and attempted murder, nobody in the barrio could believe it. “that fucking muppet?” People he’s known for years now cross the road when 1. Oso: spanish for “bear” 7


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they see him, or if they do greet him it’s briefly and without hint of a smile. andrés doesn’t think he has changed that much in those two years, but apparently he’s the only one that thinks that way, and those who used to see him as a dumb, fat idiot now seem to have discovered in his face the traits of a brutal animal. ***

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on getting out of the slammer chubby found he didn’t have a job anymore: his brother’s butcher’s had gone bust. Pascual had been writing out cheques that bounced and his creditors had stripped the shop down to the meat hooks. the owner is suing him for payment defaults but until the eviction order arrives (which could be two or three months away) Pascual has begun selling groceries: sugar, flour, tea… he set up the new shop with some counters and a fridge that someone had lent him. he runs the shop with one of his sisters, lidia, who is a year older than andrés. lidia spends the day reading best-sellers, and 8


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if a customer turns up during an interesting passage she greets them with a sour face: “What do you want?” in any case, few people enter the shop. there are two supermarkets on the same block with much lower prices, and besides, everyone knows that Pascual fixes the scales and fiddles the bills. “one or two spoons between meals,” andrés repeats when he arrives at his brother’s shop and hands him the packet. But Pascual knows this already, ‘cos he spent his whole life taking medication: for asthma, or his pancreas, or his allergies. sometimes he would wake up with a rash all over his body, or with his face swollen like a monster, and he would have to rush to Ángela’s, the nurse in the six Blocks neighbourhood, to get a cortisone injection. however, the most obvious defect that Pascual has to bear is his hunched back; not really that pronounced, but certainly hard to hide. he came into the world like this, poor Pascual: a defective item. that’s why his father abandoned him at birth. Many years later his mother re-married and had seven more children. Pascual is much older than his 9


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half brothers and sisters, and hardly a day goes by without a row with his stepfather. a month before oso returned from prison, Pascual and the old man had a fight because Pascual had insisted on smoking during lunch. “i’m in charge of this house” the old man had said and Pascual left, slamming the door behind him, but in just three days he was back again. “ha!” his stepfather mocked. “it didn’t take you long to come back with your tail between your legs!” ***

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oso got back to Bariloche two weeks ago, to the family’s small flat in el alto council blocks. Many things had changed while he was away: Pascual had lost the butcher’s, his father had retired (now he spends his days at home, bullying the family), his brothers and sisters had grown up and trabuco the dog had been run over by a truck and replaced with another. the new dog was also called trabuco, although it didn’t look anything like the one before. 10


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at the beginning he found all these changes overwhelming, but little by little the old and the new merged into one. But what hit him the hardest was the change in roberto, his favourite brother. although three years younger than him, roberto had always been his hero: quick-witted, a real joker, never afraid of a fight and a born ladies man. it was he who took him to lose his virginity with sonia No teeth, one of his many girlfriends, one afternoon when sonia’s husband was attending a union meeting —he was a driver for the council. But while chubby was away roberto had become a born again christian and now spent his days reading the Bible and sermonising. “it’s satan who makes us sin, that’s quite clear. you, for example: how could you have done such terrible things? you’re not a bad guy, but a demon took control of your soul. now you’ve gone back to your old ways, but be careful: When an unclean spirit comes out of a person, it wanders through the desert looking for a resting-place, but it finds none. then it says, ‘i will return 11


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to the house i left.’ When it arrives, if it finds it empty, swept, and put in order, then it goes and takes with him seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. so the last state of that person is worse than the first.” each and every one of roberto’s words seemed to be taken from the old or the new testament, or straight from the mouth of the reverend salvador thompson, the preacher at the Hallelujah Now temple. fatiga, another of his brothers, has kept an old cutting of El Cordillerano, the local newspaper, in a shoe box. andrés has never seen it. “youths caught in triple robbery” screams the headline. further down, fatiga had underlined with a pen: “andrés Wladimir Quirós, also known as ‘oso’, has been apprehended along with the alleged instigator of the operation who, as a minor, maintains the right not to be named.” on top of this, because he was 16 years old, Juancito was released after a week; but they threw the book at andrés, who had just turned 18: he was given twenty-two months. the first time they told him he didn’t understand, but eventually he did: he had more 12


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than enough time to think about this and a thousand other things. the cutting is two years old. is Juancito 18 by now? it all depends on when his birthday is —andrés doesn’t have a clue. “you can keep it if you want,” fatiga says. andrés folds the paper several times and puts it in his back pocket. another new development is the number of gangs going round the neighbourhood. there always were gangs, but now they organised themselves along the lines of the urban gangs in american movies. each one has their own name and uses their own code-words and gestures. the best known in his neighbourhood is called the tigers. they spray-paint their name on any wall they come across. Walking to Pascual’s shop, fatiga points to some kids drinking wine from a carton on the corner. “they belong to the tigers.” “What do they do?” “hang out. Pick on people, steal things. if you 13


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touch one, the rest jump. you gotta be careful.” oso takes another look at them. they don’t look so tough. ***

.

at night andrés and fatiga go down to the centre for a walk. it’s friday and there are quite a lot of people on Mitre street. the nightclubs for tourists and posh kids are still there (grisú, By-Pass, cerebro) but the clubs chubby used to go to have closed down or changed their names; even the one in the old cinema building is no longer there. oso feels nostalgic even though he doesn’t have the money to go anywhere. the brothers sit down on a ledge, in front of the Del Sol gallery, and watch the people passing by. a group of boys and girls (all under 18, andrés thinks) are walking up and down the street, laughing and shouting. By their attitude and the way they are dressed you can tell they are from the town centre, or one of the swanky neighbourhoods by the lakeside. fatiga says it would be good to scrounge a cigarette off them, and andrés agrees, but neither wants to go and ask. 14


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“Just go and ask her, you prick.” “it was your idea…” in the end they both approach a girl with her back to them who has a packet of Marlboro in her hand. fatiga taps her lightly on the shoulder and she turns around with ease, thinking that it’s one of her friends. But when she sees it’s a kid from el alto, she takes a step back. “can i have a fag, please?” she looks them up and down. they aren’t dirty or scruffy but you never know with these guys. “eh?” insists fatiga. the girl takes out a cigarette from the packet and offers it to him at arm’s length. “and another for my mate?” oso always envied the nerve of his brother. feeling just as intimidated as the girl, he stretches out one of his paws and takes a cigarette from the packet. she looks in alarm at his fingers, thick as salami and covered in rough prison tattoos. for a moment their eyes meet. the girl’s eyes are a mix of brown and green; she’s 15


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wearing a yellow short cropped t-shirt that shows off her belly button. andrés wants to reach out to her and stroke her head as if she were a puppy, telling her ‘don’t be scared babe, i’m here, i’ll look after you…’ “thanks,” says fatiga. the girl pulls a face and turns to her friends, who were silently watching what was happening and now surround her and touch her as if to make sure she is still intact. Back sitting on the ledge, andrés and his brother agree that the girl in the yellow t-shirt is the prettiest in the group. after a short while, her and her friends all head off in the direction of the By-Pass club. Before turning the corner, the girl gives them a final glance. they haven’t finished their cigarettes when two policemen approach them and ask them for their ids. fatiga starts to stammer and can’t find his documents: they were in a pocket he has already checked. oso hands over his id and looks the other way, still drawing on his smoke. the cops take down their details and return their ids looking at them as if to say “Watch it. We’re onto you.” 16


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that’s the problem about going down to the centre: the pigs always turn up and give you shit. the other ball-ache is walking back up the hill the twenty blocks to el alto estates, as they are always too skint to take the bus. ***

.

Pascual helped them out with a peso so andrés and fatiga went to play a game of pool in cucumelo, a local bar. it only got them one token, and when they finished they hung around to watch other people playing. fatiga won, ‘cos andrés had potted the black ball early. later that evening Morocho Peña, sopapa Velázquez (wearing, as always, a waistcoat), Velázquez’s younger brother and a skinny guy called tasmania turn up at the bar. last time he saw him, little Velázquez was just another kid from the barrio, in his white school coat and with buck-teeth like a rabbit. today he’s grown a few centimetres and has a suspicious bulge around his waist. 17


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everyone shake hands with andrés and fatiga. Peña offers them cigarettes. “We don’t have a problem with you,” Peña tells him, “but the shoe shop Boy (that’s what they called Juancito), he’s not welcome around here”. fatiga seems nervous. he really doesn’t like being around Peña and his mates. oso however is paying more attention to the buttocks of a girl who’s stretching over on the next pool table, trying to play a difficult shot. huh... she’s not a patch on the girl with the yellow t-shirt… “so you’re the tigers, huh?” asks chubby. fatiga almost chokes on his cigarette, and glances at the exit out the corner of his eye. Peña gets close up to andrés and looks at him, as if trying to work out if he is really so stupid or just pretending. “the tigers? those are a bunch of faggots. it’s me that’s gonna fuckin’ kill him, that friend of yours. Make sure you tell him if you see him.” “not a friend of mine” says oso, as calm as ever. for a moment it seems that a fight is brewing. tasmania’s jaws tighten. little Velázquez fidgets 18


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like he has an itchy arse. Peña, who doesn’t need the grief of getting involved in a bar fight, makes a move to defuse the situation. “if you see him around you tell me hey?” he says to oso. it doesn’t sound like a threat. andrés nods in agreement and says: “give us another smoke for later.” ***

.

Juancito, the old partner of andrés, had gone to live in a small settlement of wood and tin shacks by the road to llao-llao, 15 kilometres from town. the neighbourhood is set up in a wooded area, a few metres from the lake, and most of its inhabitants work on construction sites or as domestic help in the flash houses nearby. Peña knows where to find the shoe shop Boy, but has no intentions of going that far out of his territory. there’s no rush. sooner or later he would catch him hanging around el alto. his mother still lives there, in one of the tower blocks on the other side of the main road. 19


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fatiga told oso that Juancito had moved in with a girl and now had two kids. he’d been taken in a few times for break-ins or stealing stereos, but being underage he was always let off. he had had a row with Peña about a revolver that one had sold —or lent— to the other (fatiga wasn’t quite sure which); in any case it ended up with the shoe shop Boy smashing Peña’s jaw in a fight. it was on the corner of the cucumelo bar, in full view of everyone. “that’s why Juancito doesn’t come back to the barrio anymore. Peña is a coward in a fist fight, but if he wants to get you, he’ll get you all right.” fatiga said that Morocho Peña had already been questioned twice for murder as well as the times he had been kept in for robbery or anti-social behaviour, but they could never pin anything on him. Many legends were told about him, like the night he broke into a hardware store in 9 de Julio street: he entered through a skylight and on his way out he found the cops waiting for him outside. they shot Morocho twice in the stomach (some said it was just one shot, others said five) but anyway, he managed to escape and made the 20


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fifteen blocks to the hospital by foot, carrying his guts in his hands. they had to remove about two metres of his intestines that had gone rotten. in the barrio the rumour was that he had died and many felt sorry about it, as Morocho wasn’t such a bad guy and he always did his jobs away from the neighbourhood. But in the end he reappeared, and had the last laugh: before being discharged from hospital he had stolen a doctor’s stamp, and now he was using it to make out false prescriptions. ***

.

andrés spends all day in Pascual’s shop, staring through the windows. hardly anyone comes in to buy anything ‘til after 9pm, when all the supermarkets have shut. from that time onwards Pascual and lidia bump up their prices shamelessly, depending on the customer’s face or state of hurry. they usually stay open until one or two in the morning, as long as there are customers and sales are being made. Pascual smokes at least four packets a day: he’ll use one fag to light the next. When he has trouble breathing 21


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he alternates the drags from his cigarettes with the puffs of his inhaler. he spends the mornings glued to the shop window looking out for the council inspector (he hasn’t got his trading licence yet) or one of the suppliers who have been naïve enough to give him credit. Pascual is extremely vigilant, and if he sees anybody even slightly suspicious approaching, he locks the door and runs to hide behind the counter —but only after turning the oPen sign around: the other side reads closed for the holidays. the shop is a disgrace, it’s embarrassing to look at. the shelves are practically empty. dust and grime gather in every corner as no one bothers to dust them. Pascual hardly ever has the brand the customers want to buy, so he tries to convince them to buy something similar. if they ask for coke, he offers them Pepsi; if they want criollitas cream-crackers he tries to get them to buy some other biscuits of an obscure brand. sometimes he manages to pull it off. you’d think that Pascual’s shop’s days are numbered, but it has been like this for years and somehow he 22


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always manages to stay in business. god knows how. on tuesdays and thursdays lidia lights sandalwood incense sticks for luck, and on friday nights patchouli and myrrh to attract money and positive energy (and at the same time mask the stench of Pascual’s fags). on his way back from church, roberto drops into the shop and criticizes the paganistic rituals of his family. “you’ve been lighting those sticks again? that’s the work of satan…” lidia and Pascual take it as a joke. as oso doesn’t say anything, roberto tries to gain his support. “the devil’s influence is everywhere. don’t you believe me? satan exists, he’s the head of the fallen angels, those who rebelled against god.” andrés scrounges another smoke from Pascual and lights it. he is also becoming resigned to roberto’s madness. excerpt from the novel “El Oso, The Darker Side of Patagonia” © Emilio Di Tata Roitberg, 2011

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El Oso - The Darker side of Patagonia