The Carrying

This story was translated from Spanish by Juania Sueños. It can be read in its original form here.

Translator’s Note: This story is first and foremost about a man who has a system stacked against him, so much so that it shows in the way he walks: “He stumbled, lost his balance, as if life crushed him as he walked.” Eduardo Antonio Parra is certainly making a statement of what we already know happens to people who are imprisoned, of their struggle to “assimilate” into a brutal capitalism that ravaged everything they knew when they were free, turning their lives into a process of mere survival rather than a chance to thrive. The somber ending is commentary on police states like Mexico and America, in which people—haunted by their mistakes, banned from finding work, losing their voting rights, become ghosts in their environments, and wind up, once again, chained to their pasts.

The original Spanish version is more experimental; it took me reading the first pages twice to realize that the POVs alternated between the two main characters, as there are no paragraph breaks and the only signal of that switch are ellipses. Voice is a major alluring factor for me when searching for fiction, and “El hombre del costal,” is unquestionably a voice-heavy story. The voice of the title character was difficult to render in translation because it was filled with idioms and colloquialisms—which made it a joy to read. My dilemma as a translator laid in how much of the language’s integrity I was willing to sacrifice for the sake of characterization.

With “The Carrying”’s political context in mind, keeping the voice of this character, as opposed to leaning into language purism, was the only ethical approach. This was no longer about craft, but about allowing the character a chance that reality doesn’t. In the end, I used modern English vernacular for the sake of keeping the spirit of the man with the sack alive.

He paced around tables carrying his sack as if he were at the Plaza. He peered at the floor looking for who knows what, dodging the customers eating. They were shocked, uneasy, and silently praying for someone to do something about it, for someone to kick him out. Those who saw him up close were impressed by his expression. His eyes looked as if some dark substance spun inside his brain and occasionally revealed itself through his pupils the way clothes peek out behind the crystal window of a washing machine.

Yes, that’s what they said, his gaze changed depending on what was in front of him—he had the eyes of a gone man, I mean, the kind that ends up badly.

***

But nobody knows what I’m carrying. Nobody ever knew, and nobody ever will, and that’s cause you need to wear another’s skin to really see how life shits on you–people, blood, this city, these very streets, compadre; especially after the years go by. There I was thinking I wasn’t gonna notice a difference once I got back out; believing it was worth it to lock myself in for a little while so I could get to living it up with the old lady, surrounded by friends, swimming in money. I saw the chance and took it, just like that, in the dark. That was the only reason. Flipped a coin, simple. Heads or tails, evens or odds. Pitch and toss, and, compadre, tails was bin or hole, but heads, heads was bread. A girl on standby, a perpetual party, no clouds. So what if there was a delay? After a few shady years, paradise would be waiting. The minute I got out it’d all be worth it, compadre.

***

He’d been coming here for a few weeks so the servers knew him well. The man with the canvas sack, that’s what they called him. They even laughed when he sat on the sidewalk across the street oblivious to the blistering sun, a sad look on his face. He’s gonna catch rabies, they’d chuckle. One time, he got caught in a downpour and he still looked as if he couldn’t feel the water. His clothes weren’t so dirty the first days he came around. They actually seemed new. He had on a khaki shirt and matching pants. No trace of scrapes on his shoes. He resembled a janitor, or an aged middle schooler in uniform. It was only after the rain that his appearance started falling apart. He looked beat up. His clothes, baggier and wrinkled. His hair in disarray, and his nails long and black. He got this sour smell that drifted all the way to the restaurant when the wind changed course. On top of all that, his gaze got more twisted each evening that passed–always staring, but never at the plates of food. He looked beyond that, as if he were following the movements of a ghost or a memory, or something the rest of us couldn’t see, a dream.

***

In the can, months went by, then the years, and me? Bone dry of any news from anybody, just waiting there thinking of my money buried in the empty lot. Picturing the useless junk I was gonna buy with that cash. The days went and I just sat there planning and planning. I didn’t even listen when they told me the government had changed the pesos and that that old money wasn’t worth anything. And well, think about it, putting all the faith you got into something that doesn’t exist, that’s an easy way to lose your bolts, am I wrong? It’s like spending your life praying all day long, being good, believing that after you die there’s a more bitchin’ world than the shithole you were stuck in, and you break your back trying to make it and then you die of this, wearing your Sunday’s best, and kaboom! There’s only hollow darkness. Don’t you agree it’s messed up? Well, that’s how I felt when I got out. There was nothing. No girl, no boys, not even the damned neighborhood; and if I keep going, not even the city was the same. Nothing is. I don’t even trust my own eyes sometimes.

***

He wouldn’t dare cross the street. Every once in a while, he’d open up his sack and take out a little lunch or a bottle of aguardiente. He’d take a few sips and throw it back into the sack. That was that. A few days later he was part of the scenery. That’s this city. You only resist changes at the beginning, until you get used to those too. Besides, there’s so many wanderers here, the destitute, prostitutes and windshield-wiping boys. So, it was only natural we stopped taking notice of him. If we had suspected what he was going to do, we would have gotten him out on that first day he showed up, but he seemed peaceful. Some of the servers and even the busser saw him walking around in different parts of the neighborhood. They said he stumbled, lost his balance, as if life crushed him as he walked, that he stopped frequently, scanning everything with fearful eyes, or that they’d see him in front of a billboard, staring for hours.

***

As soon as I got out of the can, I took off to San Pedro, my old hood. Not one house from when I was there remained. Not one old brick in sight, no empty lots. Everything was shiny new, but weird as hell, let me tell you—houses so big they looked like buildings, rich people eateries, parks on every corner, signs I couldn’t even read. It was like I’d been locked up for a century or like Americans swallowed the place, it’s not fair. Even calling family was impossible; too many damn numbers and the machines don’t even take my coins. You catching my drift, compadre? I don’t know what happened to my country, to my city, to everything I was before. That’s enough to really lose it, wouldn’t you say?

***

The one guy that ran into him was Juan, the valet. Juan claims he had a thirst only a beer could quench; it was a hot day and he found a cantina on the outskirts of the city. One of those old places that only exist in downtown San Pedro or the historic districts of Monterrey. He said that after the first drink he wanted to take off running. The beer was fine, but the place felt like a hole hidden from time, a dugout of ghosts, that’s what Juan said. The patrons all wore the same anguish of pulsating fear, of desperation–their features rearranged, that’s what he said. They eyed him holding back their rabid anger, like they were holding a bomb of rancor with a lit fuse. And there was the man with the sack sitting by a corner, beyond drunk, two empty bottles on the table, and a remote on his hand. He changed the channel over and over, talking to himself, getting louder, and then he started sobbing, howling. The others, invested in hells of their own, paid him no mind. He was pitiful to look at. Frightened, like everyone else there, Juan left before he finished his beer, paid his tab, and left.

***

When I found the drinking hole, it was like bumping into the past. Finally, a place that felt familiar, with my people, talking my language, pura raza, men made from old wood. I thought, I can relax here, talk, drink, and watch the Tigres play on the tube. Easy, no? You know how many tequila brands there are now, and how much they cost? Turns out what used to be for us dog-fleas now is for the rich. And you know how many channels there are? Jumping pigs, pulling metals to get skinny, or a channel where spiders fight flying cockroaches and things like that; or another, where people dance twisting around like something’s hurting them. Some with people who don’t know what to do with their big bucks, degenerates that want to see other people do it. Channels for women, men, kids, even for queers. And the majority of all of these people are white! No one speaks Castilian, not even newscasters, and every table here is its own planet, bastards crying by themselves and if you get close to them they look at you like they’re ready to beat you senseless. It’s all useless, useless, just bums me out. It’s no wonder I feel like I live in a different world.

***

That evening, as soon as he came in, we saw his sullen attitude. His brow furrowed; his jaw bulged out. He squeezed his fists and jerked one of his legs. He took his usual spot, on the sidewalk across the street where the sun washed out his face. He didn’t sit. He didn’t let go of the sack. We never paid it any mind. We assumed he survived off selling aluminum cans and glass like so many others that spend all day digging through garbage. He no longer seemed sad, but rabid. At one point I thought I saw foam coming out of his mouth. But it must have been just that, my imagination. When we looked again, he was gone.

Suddenly, he was between the tables. He was scary, as Juan put it. Nobody even dared look at him or get in his way. He tripped over an empty table and the cutlery flew everywhere causing a ruckus. That was when the manager came out clapping his hands and whistling in a way he must have thought discrete, but by the time he made it out here, the man with the canvas sack had gone who-knows-where. A lot of us even went out and didn’t see him on the sidewalk or the street. We thought it odd, and that’s when the manager went inside to call the cops.

***

Even what we do day to day is different, have you not noticed? Of course, you haven’t, this is your world, you know how to move in it, don’t you? I honestly haven’t done it, and I don’t think I ever can. But on God, I tried. My balls swelled from all the effort, but I couldn’t even find work; you know, they think I’m too old to be a working man, old, damn it! At thirty-eight years old! My father bent over backwards ‘til he was almost seventy! What kind of damn world is this? And when I almost get them convinced that I really need the work, let’s see asshole, let’s see your record, a background check–forget it, they break me with that one.

But what do I do? I drag ass to another factory, and they tell me the machines are too modern now. Do I know how to use computers, can I work the Infranet, or whatever you call it? Do I know English? Where did everyone learn these things? When did the white man conquer us, and why didn’t anyone have the decency to let me know? That’s when I thought about getting greens hand over fist. Money makes this stinkin’ world go around, makes the street dogs dance, don’t you think? And I was aching to have a waltz. If I’d gone through this already, another coin toss is no shock. Heads or tails.

***

He didn’t leave. He hid in the garden. I think he must have known the place well, maybe he’d studied it from watching across the road. By the time we noticed his presence again, it looked like he was measuring the floor. He took long strides from where the tree was, a determined look on his face, like he was counting. He stopped, surrounded by four tables. The customers were naturally frightened. On top of looking like a crazy bull, he stunk of sewer bad enough to send anyone running. But nobody was saying anything. We were all still, watching him. Only this big gut that looked like one of those cattle men got up from the table where he was eating with his family, and yelled something in an indignant voice like, “Damn gutter dog, get the hell outta here!”

The insult finally made us react. The manager fell back waving his hands in the air. The servers all tried to catch him but stopped when the man opened his sack, pulled out a crowbar and pointed it at the cattleman, his eyes wide open. The woman with him shrieked and the kids grabbed onto her. The big man backed off and tripped over a chair behind him, along with server carrying a tray, and flipped over his table. He hit the floor, broken ceramics and food bouncing in every direction. There had never been a moment as silent in the restaurant as the one when the man with the sack took out a large sledgehammer and knelt down where the cattleman was.

***

And I told myself, what if the cash is right where you left it? What are you waiting for? Just go on and grab it, it’s yours after all, isn’t it? You won it since that first bet. It’s done.

I went over to the garage a street over and grabbed me some tools so I could take from the rich what’s mine, what I’d already earned, paid for, compadre, that’s all, you see? But I got all tied up in the head, that’s why things turned out wrong, this damned new world is to blame, these people that aren’t like they were before are to blame. Not in my wildest imagination did I think I’d get into a match with a big bear like that. These are different times. Back then people got scared as soon as they saw a steel bar, they backed off, unlike that man that blocked my way. I tried to move him, but it is what it is. Crying won’t do any good. I lost once again, compadre. So you know, I’m going back to spend a few seasons in the shade, and I hope this time it’s forever. That’s why I came to have some drinks, my last bottle. I have the right, don’t I? I’m calm. The blue boys won’t be too long to drag me back to the glass house, or what? You wanna be the one to take me? Go ahead, I’m in a hurry.

***

People turned the other way to avoid the sight of the man lifting the tool above his head. There was a really loud, no, and I couldn’t tell whether it came from the manager or the cattleman on the floor. We were paralyzed. The man looked around before swinging. His eyes red, his cry like a howl. The noise of the first hit enmeshed with the yelp of pain from the cattleman, the screams melded with the ones of the women and children. We could hear only sounds of banging metal, and see fragments of plates, glasses, and food jumping around on the floor, while the cattleman’s yelps turned into a drawn-out scream, and the crowbar flew up and down, up and down. That’s when the sirens began from afar. The man stopped beating and lifted his sweaty face. He shot a hateful glance at those who watched him in terror. He got up and ran into the street, tripping along, until our eyes couldn’t reach him. That was when we gathered around the fat, fallen man and realized he was on the verge of a  heart attack, though not hurt. Next to him was a hole in the ground, the crowbar nailed in the floor and the sledgehammer by its side.

We never did figure out why he came to dig in here; apparently, he didn’t tell the police. They caught him a few hours later. It was easy. He was at the bar that Juan told them about, a remote in his hand. He flipped through channels, drinking aguardiente, talking to himself. They said he lost that look of a gone man, that he even smiled when he saw the officers. Yes, he left his sack here. I was the one who threw it in the trash. There was nothing in it aside from a bunch of tequila bottles—some of brands you can’t find at the market nowadays.