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f you, dear reader, prefer books with fairy-tale endings,

JJJJiyou would do well to not read this novel. Even in the English translation, these Colombian characters and places will sit very close to you. In bursts of fiction and nonfiction, Heart of Scorpio Pambelé”), using four distinct voices that represent the personal, family, social, and public aspects of the protagonist’s life.

AVSKI

tells the tragic story of ex-champion boxer, Antonio Cervantes (“Kid

JOSEPH

I

Literary Fiction

When combined, these vignettes reveal all the pathos of the human condition, both at the height of brilliant success and in the depths of disastrous failure.

!! WINNER OF THE IX ANNUAL NATIONAL NOVEL AWARD FROM THE MEDELLÍN CHAMBER OF COMMERCE

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HEART OF SCORPIO

Tiny TOE Press Austin, Texas www.theopenend.com

Translated by

Joseph Avski Mark McGraw


JOSEPH AVSKI

HEART OF

SCORPIO

Translated from the Spanish by Mark David McGraw

TINY TOE PRESS Books handpressed with love.


HEART OF SCORPIO © Joseph Avski y Cámara de Comercio de Medellín para Antioquia-2009 English translation copyright © 2012 by Mark David McGraw First Edition Published by TINY TOE PRESS Austin, Texas www.theopenend.com Publisher’s Note: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

ISBN-13: 978-0-9858228-0-4 ISBN-10: 0985822805 Cover design by Bridget Gamber All rights reserved.


* * * !

“Want me to tell ya ‘bout it?" said Milton Olivella moving his fists of steel with the weight of fifty-seven hard lived years. He moved a few inches from the table to make space between two chairs and bumped against another table, almost knocking over a beer bottle. "Careful," said Joseph Avski when he saw the bottle dance on the tabletop. "Don't worry, brotha," soothed Milton, "They know me here in this bar. You're with a world champion, anyway, ya know?" It was the first time Avski had laid eyes on him after two years of investigation. Until then Milton had stayed one step ahead. If he went to his house to look for him, Ángela Iguarán, his wife, would tell him that it was too bad but if by the grace of God he had arrived five minutes earlier he would have caught him at home. If he dropped by his friend Johnny Pitalúa's gym, Johnny would tell him that Milton had just gone out to buy some new gloves for a fighter, a kid, man, who's gonna be a world champ, like Milton. If he went to Bazurto's market in Cartagena some would assure him Olivella had just left and others would swear he hadn’t been in there in months. It didn't matter where or in what city Avski looked, Milton Olivella was always one step ahead.


When he sat down to write the story he remembered finally seeing Olivella standing in front of a table with his hands up, smiling as if he were not really there, but present in a past many years distant. Up until that day Milton Olivella gave the impression that he was everywhere and nowhere, that he existed in other times but never in the present. He appeared and disappeared as if he had mastered some secret of tribal African magic. And he would transform into different personalities of himself: one minute he was the sports car collector who could hold forth about the design advantages of Porsche over Ferrari and the next minute he’d be a maniac threatening a waitress with a butter knife for having confused him with an ex-soccer star from Unión Magdalena. One night he was charged with assault and battery in Montería, Manizales, Tunja and Armenia; four different cities in Colombia. In all four cases he was proven to be present but declared innocent. When a national news reporter interviewed one of the judges and asked him about the apparent contradiction of the charges against Olivella in four distinct places separated by over six hundred miles at the same time, he responded, “The facts are the facts.” One night Avski received a call informing him that Olivella had been admitted to the university hospital with a knife wound in the buttocks, but when he arrived at the

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hospital Olivella had already left after stealing sheets, bottles of anesthetic and syringes. Avski interviewed one of the nurses and suggested that Olivella might be crazy. “Crazy?” answered the nurse. “I’ve known Olivella for more than twenty years and to tell you the truth, I’m crazier than he is.” Years of Avski’s investigation had produced all kinds of stories. One afternoon he appeared nude in a photo that was reproduced by all the tabloids, and the photo turned out to have been photo-shopped. Avski saw all kinds of home videos about Olivella. In one of them he was imitating the chirp of the parakeets in the Ecce Homo barrio in Valledupar; there was another that started showing the bout where he defeated Martinez and finished punching and grabbing at a cameraman; while a third one showed him dancing the champeta in a neighborhood on the outskirts of Cartagena. A man in Cali related that he had heard Olivella imitating Héctor Lavoe around one of the places in town where you can buy drugs. A young man in Cúcuta remembered him recommending sex with animals. An Italian tourist reported that he had argued with Olivella about the quality of French wines. A taxi driver from Barranquilla remembered that he heard Olivella come up with a game-day lineup for the Colombian national soccer team that was a mix of live and dead players as well as a

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Spanish bullfighter. A student at the University of Antioquia in Medellín heard him accuse the President of the United States of having hatched a plan for Olivella to lose his World Junior Welterweight title. The same day a student at the University of Córdoba who was on vacation in Santa Marta said they had played beach football and smoked marijuana together afterwards. A lawyer from Pasto swore to Avski that Olivella had invited him to lunch and ended up making a huge scene because the waiter didn’t know the correct etiquette for serving the wine. Thousands, maybe millions of people all over Colombia claimed to have felt the force of Olivella’s punches and the ravages of his unpredictability in unexpected situations. A lawyer in a disco, a nun at the door of a supermarket, a bus driver waiting in line at the movie, a whore in a beauty shop, a reporter on a dark street. Olivella had assaulted people and committed petty crimes all over Colombia, and still Avski couldn’t find him. He would disappear like the smoke of a crack pipe until that night in a neighborhood bar with plastic chairs when, wide-eyed and with blood on his shirt, Olivella told him about his last fight against Ernie King, the black junior welterweight from the United States.

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“Everybody was there to see me fight, brotha,” Joseph Avski heard him say as he panned around the bar. “Ya know, it ain’t every day that a champion of my stature comes out of retirement and puts the gloves back on, you know how it is.” Avski didn’t know how to take him; not sure if he was in the stamp of the English gentleman with the Caribbean accent that they all described as temperate, or like the hurricane that destroyed and humiliated everything in its path when he was on something. Avski wasn’t sure either if he was sober and just excited about the interview or if he was high. When he asked Milton what had happened to his lip and why he had a blood stain on his shirt he got a little flustered and replied that he had run into a glass door that he hadn’t seen. ! “That’s what I get, bro, for walking around with my head in the clouds.” But Avski knew it was something different. “Ya want me to tell ya?” repeated Milton Olivella while he remembered how he had come out of the locker room like a man from another world. He came out of the dressing room at the bullring in Cartagena that had been set up especially for this fight. Behind him were the seconds that saw the crowd explode in a downpour of applause. Milton

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raised his hands and let the noise shower down on him. He reached the ring at an ambling walk and said hello one-byone to the reporters at the press table. “Everybody was there to see me fight,” said Milton, taking a look around to make sure that he had the attention of the people at the other tables. “You know, to see a world champion come out of retirement and put the gloves back on, that ain’t an everyday thing, you know how it is. There were people there from all the newspapers and magazines: Cromos, Semana, El Espectador, El Tiempo, El Universal, El Heraldo, not even counting the foreigners, you understand, there were lots of them: gringos, Europeans, Japanese . . . the craziness, just unbelievable.” Milton paused his performance to find the right words. “It was incredible, man, the event of the year.” King entered the other side of the ring snapping jabs in the air to get the audience’s attention, his dark skin contrasting with the white robe he was wearing. Milton took comfort in the idea of King wasting his energy jabbing the air before the fight started. The audience responded to King with whistles and catcalls. “Those people loved me, man.” said Olivella with a slight tremor in his voice. “Nobody had come to see that gringo fight, you know. Everybody was there for me.”

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For a moment Joseph Avski saw him just like he remembered him in the ring: touched by the grace of a divine light. Those were the days when Milton seemed to have been born under Orion’s tutelage, but no, his guiding star was Antares, named by the Arabs Kalb al-Akrab: The Heart of Scorpio. Olivella looked around at the unexpected attention from the surrounding tables and the theatricality of his movements increased. “I just danced him in the first round. Just a game of footwork, just feints and hip movement. You know, brotha, how Muhammad Ali danced the first round with Floyd Patterson, you remember in 1975. I got close to him without throwing a single punch just to see what he would throw me to keep me away, or I’d fake him with an overhand right or a hook just to see where he’d defend. That stuff tells ya how to fight him. When ol’ King figured out I wasn’t punching he really got on me but I kept to the plan, you know how it is, bro, beating him with footwork, making space, walking, moving the waist, dancing. That’s the stuff you learn with experience, you know. You don’t win fights by just throwing haymakers. So I figured out how he would attack. That stuff is important, you know why, because when a guy attacks he leaves holes and that’s where you stick the best punches, man. In those holes. He got to me a

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couple of times, but I was OK, he never hit me hard. But by that point I had him figured out, bro, I already knew what he was gonna do, how he was gonna attack. That right there is the secret to how to win a fight. But the fight didn’t really start until the second round.�

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JULIÁN I’ll just tell you one thing: you’re worth what you have. That’s how it is and everybody knows it. Don’t come to me with stories about how he’s a great person when he’s sober and how he brought electricity to Palenque and how he’s admired and respected in the world of boxing, nobody cares if he was world champion or was richer than the Pope, it seems to me if you don’t have anything now, you’re worth nothing now. Mama comes out of the kitchen with her big multicolored robe that she bought at the market with a rag wrapped around her head, she brings me a black coffee. I don’t understand why she’s got to dress like a black woman, like people don’t already know. Anyway, those robes are for poor people and to dress like a poor person is just asking to be poor. She took a long time bringing me the coffee but I don’t say anything. Mama is a sensitive woman so it’s best to treat her delicately and not point out her faults. She’s got them, like everybody, but in reality they’re excusable. I’ll bring your breakfast in just a minute, she says, and disappears into the kitchen again. I light a cigarette to go with the black coffee. The breakfast should have already been ready, but I don’t say

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anything. Sometimes it’s not easy to be so patient but it gets easier with practice. You shouldn’t be smoking so early, says Mama, sticking her head out of the kitchen door. I don’t say anything and I keep smoking for a while. The coffee’s not that good. I’ve told her a million times that you have to heat the water before putting it in the coffee maker. But since she doesn’t get up early enough she doesn’t have enough time. And she still takes forever to make the coffee and bring out my breakfast. In spite of all that I keep my mouth shut. Mama comes out of the kitchen, passes by me, and opens the window behind me. As she comes back she puts her hand on my shoulder. Is it ready? I ask. Just about, she says. I told you I’ve got a meeting with the lawyer and I’ve got to get to the office earlier than usual, I say. I know, son, it’s just about ready, says Mama. It’s like an everyday thing, this waiting for breakfast. Of course, if it were up to me I’d have one woman hired right now to ask us what we want for breakfast and another in charge of making the breakfast. That and lots of other things. But Papa never let me take charge of things and Mama always said it was his money.

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Finally Mama comes out with the plates and puts them on the table. I need silverware, I say. She goes to the kitchen to get silverware and comes back and sits down. We eat for a little while without saying anything. I think about how it would be if we would have done things my way: everything would be very different. He didn’t come home to sleep last night, Mama says like it’s something new. All the better, I say. No, son, I don’t sleep well when Milton doesn’t come home to sleep. And you don’t sleep well when he does come home, I think. I’m sure you sleep better when he stays away than when he hits you. Well, I sleep better when he doesn’t come home for the night, I say. Son, don’t say that, he’s your father and his place is here with us in the house, says Mama. This isn’t his house, I say. This is too his house, if it’s not his house then it’s not mine, either, says Mama. Whatever, I say. I sleep better when I don’t have to get up in the middle of the night to calm somebody down.

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Son, you just want to look on the bad side of everything, put yourself on the same level as your father when he’s had too much to drink or he’s taken something, but the only way to help your Papa get better is through prayer. Prayer hasn’t done anything for all these years, I think, but I don’t say anything. I’ll tell you what, though: if we had done things differently we’d all be singing a different tune right now. This afternoon I’ve got a meeting with him, I hope he shows, I say. It’s about the money? asks Mama. Yeah, I say, this morning I meet with the lawyer to get the papers drawn up, so Papa’s pension can be administered between you and me, and then I meet with Papa this afternoon so he can sign them. Oh, son, says Mama, I don’t know how I feel about leaving your papa without money to eat. He’s never spent a dime of his pension on food, I say. Don’t talk like that, son, says Mama trying not to sound indignant. She knows I don’t like people raising their voices at me. That money, I say, isn’t enough to pay for all the things he breaks every time he shows up here coked out.

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It’s his money, son, says Mama. We live well on what we have. We live well because I work, I say. She knows that what I make isn’t enough to maintain this house. She made more when she was a maid for rich women in Cartagena. They paid more just to be able to say that the woman that was cleaning the bathrooms or washing the clothes or making lunch was none other than Ángela Iguarán, Milton Olivella’s wife. Now, not only does she make less money working as a maid, she works practically for free as a volunteer at the church. I’ve told her a thousand times that this situation of working with the church isn’t going to cut it or at the least the priest could send us one of his maids to make sure breakfast isn’t late every morning, but I don’t say anything. I’d rather she went back to cleaning houses as a maid because she’s not going to find a better paying job and it’s all she knows how to do – work is work and it’s all worth doing. She says she doesn’t need to because we live well, like she doesn’t remember how we lived before. I always finish my breakfast before she does. I light a cigarette. Don’t smoke so much, son, she says. Is there more black coffee? I ask.

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Yes, she says. Bring me more, I say. Mama gets up and disappears into the kitchen. She comes back with a cup of coffee and puts it in front of me. I smoke and she keeps eating her breakfast for a while.

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JOHNNY PITALÚA And I said, “It was the first advice I gave him, man, to not trust anyone, everybody here either wants to rip you off or to see you go down because they’re jealous.” And Blackie Espinosa said, “That’s it, Ol’ Johnny, you can’t even trust your mama, not even your own mama. But that’s how it is, Ol’ Johnny, you know they was never gonna hand over all that money they offered him.” And I said, “I’m going to get more fried plantains and another juice. You want something else?” And Blackie said, “No, I’m OK right now.” And the lady who sold the beans said, “Here you go”, and she gave me a little wrapped up order of fried plantains and a plastic cup of mango juice. I paid her and we started walking to the gym. They had already told me. I was talking to my wife about this yesterday. I knew they would try to trick the kid, I already know these people, I saw everything they did to Milton, I said. This kid Miguel is really good, a natural athlete, one in a million and he’s white, you understand, educated, and I know that if he does everything I say and lets me teach him everything I know, he’s going to be a world champion. My wife didn’t say anything. The problem with these people is that they want to get you there as

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rapidly as possible, which ain’t right because they’ll put you in a title fight before you’re ready, look at Milton, when he fought for the first time against the Argentine in . . . let me see . . . seventy one, I was telling my wife . . . he lost. Aha, there in Luna Park, I was with him and he lost, not because the Argentine was better than him, but because he wasn’t ready, you understand, Milton could have beaten him but he couldn’t beat the way those people supported the Argentine. To fight the guy in Argentina was like nothing we had never felt. Milton mentioned it to me and I agreed with him, that the support that guy had in Argentina was something Milton never felt, not even when he was the richest black guy in Colombia, the cat that slept with the beauty queens and ate lunch with the presidents. Because the difference is that there were ten thousand Argentines coming to see their guy win. And if there were ten thousand Colombians coming to see Milton fight there were ten thousand hoping to see him lose. That’s why when Milton was a world champion and he fought against the Argentine in Caracas, Venezuela and the guys in the Argentine’s corner threw in the towel because their guy was just suffering for no reason, you understand, I was telling my wife, and the fight had been lost two rounds before and there was no way to come back and win, the guy cried from shame in the ring, like a

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baby, you understand, cried from shame because it wasn’t just him, it was a country. My wife still didn’t say anything. But that’s what I was telling this kid Miguel, that I would put him on the list of aspiring title holders because I didn’t want to what happened to Milton the first time to happen to him, because getting a second shot ain’t easy, you understand, I was telling my wife that I told this kid Miguel, and the important thing is to arrive at the title fight ready to win. That’s what I told him. It’s a shame that the kid picked dangerous people to represent him. They don’t give a flip about his career, they just want to make money off him, you understand. But my wife didn’t say anything because when I rolled over to look at her she was already asleep. And I said, “And what does the kid plan to do?” And Blackie said, “I don’t know, Johnny, I really don’t know.” And I said, “It really bugs me, you know, because the kid was a natural athlete, like Milton, really something special.” We got to the gym and while I looked for my keys to open up, Blackie opened up with his keys. We went around hanging up the heavy bags, adjusting the ropes in the ring, taking out the headgear, organizing the jump ropes and gloves, checking the sandbags, etc. What happened with the

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kid is that some Venezuelan showed up offering him much more money per fight and a trainer with more experience, you understand, but one thing’s for sure, bro, I don’t buy the part about more experience, maybe better opportunities, but more experience, no way. I’ve seen it all, bro, with Milton I learned it all. And sure, cuz, the kid left, you understand. It’s disrespectful, it’s like a betrayal to be left like that, that easily, but I understand that the kid Miguel is young and he believed he had a straight, easy shot to the title and all the money that goes with it. The first who comes to train is Efraim, a rich kid who wants to be a writer and thinks that since Edgar Hemingway, or whoever he was, was a boxer and then a writer that he’s going to do the same. One thing’s for sure, though, nobody gets smarter from being smacked upside the head. And Efraim shouts when he enters the gym, “Johnny Pitalúa, the coach.” And I say, “There’s ol’ Fren, the smart guy.” And Efraim says, “Herman Espinosa, named for a great writer.” And Blackie says, “Efraim, named after a queer.” And Efraim says, “Or a hairdresser, maybe.” And Efraim goes to the locker room to change clothes.

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I always told that kid Miguel, don’t waste your best years, don’t make the same mistakes Milton made. I told him that because I knew that at some point someone was going to come try to take my place and I was wanting to keep going with him, to the top, you understand, as part of the team, not as a friend or even as the guy who discovered him, but as his trainer, you understand. And Blackie yells at Efraim when he comes out of the locker room, “Warm up and then two-minute bouts with the heavy bag with one-minute rests for forty minutes.” Then I see the Kid Óscar “Hands of yams” Manzur. So I say, “Kid Óscar ‘Hands of yams’ Manzur, how’s your mama?” And Kid Óscar “Hands of yams” Manzur says, “Good, Mista Johnny, she’s back at home.” And I say, “I’m glad, cuz, I’m really glad to hear that.” And Kid Óscar “Hands of yams” Manzur says, “Thanks for your concern, Mista Johnny.” Milton discovered the kid Miguel when he was working here in the gym. One day he saw him fighting in the street because someone had said something about his mama, or no, let me see, it was because they both liked the same girl. Whatever it was, Milton told him to go to the gym and train because he had potential. Milton used to say that

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he was his student and that he would be a world champion, but that was when he asked me for twenty-five dollars to buy the kid some gloves and he never showed his face at the gym again. And Blackie said hello to Manzur, “It’s the man from Ciénaga de Oro.” And Kid Óscar “Hands of yams” Manzur said, “The best dressed, richest black man in Cartagena.” And Blackie said, “All right, Manzur, all right.” And Efraim said, “Hey Espinosa, somebody told me something about the dudes from over there Ciénaga de Oro, in Manzur’s town.” And Blackie, “Yeah, what’d they tell you?” And Efraim, “That the men over there are such a bunch of queers that the only thing straight over there was a little mango tree in the plaza that had long since flowered.” And everybody laughed except me because I was thinking about the kid Miguel and about how he betrayed us by just up and leaving with those Venezuelans like that. And Kid Óscar “Hands of yams” Manzur said, “Now, if you want we can spar in a little bit so you see how a queer can knock your ass out.” And Efraim laughed again.

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And I said, “Manzur, a little bit of weights and then the heavy bag.” And Kid Óscar “Hands of yams” Manzur said, “I’m not doing weights, Mista Johnny, because of that thing with my shoulder.” And I said, “Oh, that’s right, cuz, I forgot. Jump rope for forty minutes and then shadowbox with the weighted gloves and that’ll help your shoulder.”

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Born in 1980 in Medellín, Colombia, Joseph Avski graduated with a degree in Physics from the Universidad de Antioquia (Colombia) and an MFA in Creative Writing from University of Texas at El Paso. He has published poetry and short stories in Colombia, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Spain, Mexico, and the USA; and has won short story contests in Colombia, Uruguay, and the USA. In 2009, he won the IX annual National Novel Award from the Medellín Chamber of Commerce with his opera prima El corazón del escorpión (Heart of Scorpio). In 2010, he was the finalist in the XII Novel Biennial “José Eustasio Rivera” with his novel El libro de los infiernos (The Book of Infernos). He is currently earning his Ph.D. in Hispanic Studies from Texas A&M University.

After a twenty-year career as a Marine Corps infantry officer that included service in thirty-five countries, Mark David McGraw entered the doctoral program in Hispanic Studies at Texas A&M University in 2009. He has translated poetry, academic articles and literary works from Spanish to English for anthologies, journals and magazines. He currently resides in College Station, Texas with his family.

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HEART OF SCORPIO