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Conversation in the Cathedral
From the doorway of La Crónica Santiago looks at the Avenida Tacna without love: cars, uneven and faded buildings, the gaudy skeletons of posters floating in the mist, the gray midday. At what precise moment had Peru fucked itself up? The newsboys weave in and out among the vehicles halted by the red light on Wilson, hawking the afternoon papers, and he starts to walk slowly toward Colmena. His hands in his pockets, head down, he goes along escorted by people who are also going in the direction of the Plaza San Martin. He was like Peru, Zavalita was, he'd fucked himself up somewhere along the line. He thinks: when? Across from the Hotel Crillón a dog comes over to lick his feet: don't get your rabies on me, get away. Peru all fucked up, Carlitos all fucked up, everybody all fucked up. He thinks: there's no solution. He sees a long line at the taxi stop for Miraflores, he crosses the square, and there's Norwin, hello, at a table in the Zela Bar, have a seat, Zavalita, fondling a chilcano and having his shoes shined, he invites him to have a drink. He doesn't look drunk yet and Santiago sits down, tells the bootblack to shine his shoes too. Yes, sir, boss, right away, boss, they'll look like a mirror, boss.
"No one's seen you for ages, Mr. Editorial Writer," Norwin says. "Are you happier on the editorial page than with the local news?"
"There's less work." He shrugs his shoulders, it was probably that day when the editor called him in, he orders a cold Cristal, did he want to take Orgambide's place, Zavalita? He thinks: that's when I fucked myself up. "I get in early, they give me my topic, I hold my nose, and in two or three hours all set, I unbuckle my chains and that's it."
"I wouldn't write editorials for all the money in the world," Norwin says. "It's too far removed from the news, and journalism is news, Zavalita, believe me. I'll end my days on the police beat, that's all. By the way, did Carlitos die yet?"
"He's still in the hospital, but they're going to let him out soon," Santiago says. "He swears he's off the bottle this time."
"Is it true that one night he saw cockroaches and spiders when he went to bed?" Norwin asks.
"He lifted up the sheet and thousands of tarantulas and mice came at him," Santiago says. "He ran out into the street bare-ass and hollering."
Norwin laughs and Santiago closes his eyes: the houses in Chorrillos are cubes with gratings on them, caves cracked by earthquakes, inside there's a traffic of utensils and reeking little old women with slippers and varicose legs. A small figure runs among the cubes, his shrieks make the oily predawn shudder and infuriate the ants and scorpions that pursue him. Consolation through alcohol, he thinks, against the slow death of the blue devils of hallucination. He was all right, Carlitos was, you had to defend yourself against Peru as best you could.
"One of these days I'm going to come across the creatures too." Norwin contemplates his chilcano with curiosity, half smiles. "But there's no such thing as a teetotaling newspaperman, Zavalita. Drinking gives you inspiration, believe me."
The bootblack is through with Norwin and now he's putting polish on Santiago's shoes, whistling. How were things at Ultima Hora, what were the scoundrels there saying? They were complaining about your ingratitude, Zavalita, that you should stop by and see them sometime, the way you used to. But since you have lots of free time now, Zavalita, did you take a second job?
"I read, I take naps," Santiago says. "Maybe I'll go back to law school."
"You get away from the news and now you want a degree." Norwin looks at him sadly. "The editorial page is the end of the road, Zavalita. You'll get a job as a lawyer, you'll leave the newspaper business. I can already see you as a proper bourgeois."
"I've just turned thirty," Santiago says. "That's kind of late for me to start being a bourgeois."
"Thirty, is that all?" Norwin is thoughtful. "I'm thirty-six and I could pass for your father. The police page puts you through the grinder, believe me."
Male faces, dull and defeated eyes at the tables of the Zela Bar, hands that reach for ashtrays and glasses of beer. How ugly people are here, Carlitos is right. He thinks: what's come over me today? The bootblack cuffs away two dogs that are panting among the tables.
"How long is the campaign against rabies in La Crónica going to last?" Norwin asks. "It's getting boring, another whole page on it this morning."
"I wrote all the editorials against rabies," Santiago says. "Hell, that doesn't bother me as much as writing on Cuba or Vietnam. Well, the line's gone now. I'm going to catch a taxi."
"Let's have lunch, I'm inviting," Norwin says. "Forget about your wife, Zavalita. Let's bring back the good old days."
Hot coney and cold beer, the Rinconcito Cajamarquino in the Bajo el Puente district and a view of the vague waters of the Rimac River slipping along over snot-colored rocks, the muddy Haitian coffee, gambling at Milton's place, chilcanos and a shower at Norwin's, the midnight apotheosis at the whorehouse with Becerrita, which brought on deflation, the acid sleep, the nausea and the doubts of dawn. The good old days, maybe it had been then.
"Ana's made some shrimp soup and I wouldn't want to miss that," Santiago says. "Some other time."
"You're afraid of your wife," Norwin says. "Boy, you really are fucked up, Zavalita."
Not because of what you thought, brother. Norwin insists on paying for the beer, the shine, and they shake hands. Santiago goes back to the taxi stop, the car he takes is a Chevrolet and the radio is on, Inca Cola refreshed the best, then a waltz, rivers, canyons, the veteran voice of Jesus Vásquez, it was my Peru ...Conversation in the Cathedral. Copyright © by Mario Vargas Llosa. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.