Chapter 20: The Gray Thread

(C) 2011 by Metta Anderson – All Rights Reserved 

For the rest of his life, whenever Julian heard Queen, the first memory would be driving through the foothills in northern Tucson at night with Grace, her favorite 8-track of the British group playing almost too loudly on the car’s built-in tape deck. Not only did she like the group a lot, but she teased Julian sometimes that he and Queen’s lead singer were the same person. He’d just smile and change the subject. Yes, he and Freddie Mercury had dark hair and dark eyes and roughly the same height, but Mercury could sing, and Julian knew he could not, ever. Besides, Mercury was frankly–especially in Europe, where the band was more popular–more outré than the Colombian would ever dream of being. Still, he accepted Grace’s compliment because it was well-intended.

He’d also always remember that her favorite Queen song was Freddie Mercury doing a solo on piano in a way that called up all kinds of fantasies of ’30s nightclubs, where elegance reigned supreme. What was the name of the song, though? It was the last one on a recent album, too, but that didn’t mean he’d remembered it. What the hell, Grace liked it, and that’s all that mattered.

He sat on a lounge chair in the shade near the pool at the Hotel Guadalajara, in Buga, Colombia. Grace was moving through the colonnade on the other side of the water, taking pictures. He had to admit the pool area was unique, looking more like a movie set than a movie, if that made sense. The turquoise water glittered in the afternoon sun, but with an intensity he’d never noticed in pools in other places. The foliage over the colonnade running the length of the pool was emerald green and black, creating abstract shadow patterns on Grace, on the floor and onto the water. He hoped she could capture not just what they were looking at, but the mood of it, the silence of the afternoon–as if they were the only guests in the hotel–the occasional breeze, the momentary security. He wanted a beer, or a cigarette, or something, but he just didn’t have the energy to look for them. He’d fallen into a tropical cocoon and didn’t want to leave it, ever.

He’d felt that way in Popayán, too, until he went off with John and ran into the kind of reality that usually Grace’s military friends encountered, but they had weapons, and he had at most a Dunhill lighter, a gift from Elisabetta last year. He was surprised he was able to keep his cool for as long as he did during those very long 36 hours somewhere in Cauca. Where the hell had they gone?

Or more honestly, why had he called John in the first place? Shit, what a stupid idea! Oh yeah, Elisabetta and her friends, especially her friends. He wished he could tell Grace all this, but the words wouldn’t come out. Or else he didn’t really want to. It’d be like telling his mother, almost, even though Grace was a lot more sophisticated.

He changed position in the lounge chair. Fuck it–marry Grace and let everyone else take care of themselves. She cared about him as Julian, not as a provider of whatever the hell other people thought they wanted. He remembered being in Mexico with her, in Guadalajara, specifically, and an argument they had because of a dream she had. She thought he was going to abandon her there and he had some kind of flip reply that she understood as “yes,” when he meant “no.” He had no intention of abandoning her in Mexico or anywhere else. In fact, he worried that she’d drop him in Mexico. A lone Colombian in Mexico would have almost no chance of survival, even if he were standing in front of his country embassy. So except for that lovely village and the convent-turned-hotel, Mexico was a nightmare, a waking one. No wonder he wanted to drink and get stoned the whole time.

But now, back in Colombia, where both felt at home, he thought they were searching for the same thing–a quiet and safe place just to BE. He could not believe where she was living when he came back to Bogotá from California, a cramped little apartment carved out of a garage in Chapinero, with her friend Emma. He was sorry she hadn’t been able to find a furnished apartment right away, but he was definitely glad Emma was no longer around. He wasn’t interested in her political views, but her brittle smiles and intense concentration on keeping herself to herself made casual conversation impossible. Didn’t she have any social skills? (He knew Grace’s weren’t that hot, but Grace was charming. Emma was not.) Well, anyway, he could see that Grace was more relaxed in her own apartment, not a lot, but better than before.

He’d stay with Grace a couple of days, go home and catch up on other things, deflect pointed questions from his mother, talk to his father, advise his brothers and sister, and go back to Grace. His mother had the American’s phone number, in case something really devastating happened, but since everyone was in Bogotá, what could go wrong?

Elisabetta, for one thing. She was in California, and then in Chicago to visit friends, before going to Europe for “the season” (i.e., August)  and planned to see Julian in September back in California.

Yeah, well, she planned, but Julian was reluctant. Her plans–which sounded fairly rational after a couple of joints and some scotch in the large apartment in Los Angeles, with her European friends–gnawed at him in Bogotá’s cool light. Europeans and Americans were thoroughly ignorant of Colombia´s geography. They had proposed that Julian check out the drug trade, with the idea of setting up a kind of private supply line between Bogotá and Los Angeles and some cities in Europe (front runners being Paris, Brusselles and Frankfort/Munich). Julian would reply casually, sure, why not?  He had the connections, you know. . .

But in Bogotá, he had a much clearer head. His “connections” were limited to scoring a little pot, which was easily available among his friends and even some family members. Half-an-ounce or so, not kilos. Besides, there were other problems in Colombia which had changed just daily life quite a lot. A new guerrilla group called M-19 had sprung up and President Julio César Turbay’s government was bent on cracking down on them, as hard as he could. Millions of dollars had already been spent on arms and training for the National Police and the armed forces–as if M-19 were an army of millions, instead of a group of a few thousand, all told, led by young men who’d gone to the same schools as Julian. And in the meantime, both the ELN (Army of National Liberation) and the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) were no longer rag-tag groups in the countryside. They were also well-armed and making forays into cities. The FARC had cells in several universities through which they recruited naïve (in Julian’s opinion) middle class students, but their base camps were in the jungle.

He wrote Elisabetta, explaining this, but when she called him, it was obvious she didn’t believe him. She and her friends were convinced that the government and armed forces in Colombia were corrupt and therefore, easily bought off. So he should stick to their plans because, in the end, he’d make just as much money as they would.

He wished she’d been with him as dawn came up on that back road outside Popayán. John had an old 1950-something Land Rover which charged through the large potholes at a steady speed, but kept both men busy grabbing the bars on the dashboard to keep from being thrown out of the vehicle. They were moving through mostly pasture land, with deep vegetation on the sides of the road, and beyond that they could see herds of Brahma cattle and maybe some Charolais grazing or standing around under plane trees. They also passed delapidated shacks where three-generation families packed themselves into one room, with a kind of kitchen outside under a palm leaf roof and a corral or two slightly farther back from the road. No electricity, no running water and not much of anything else.

John turned left onto a dirt track and slowed down. After a few yards, trees and bushes crowded up so closely to the road they had to close the windows and slow down even more. Out of nowhere, a young man with a rifle, knee-high rubber boots and a shoulder badge stepped into the road and raised his hand. John stopped and rolled down his window.

“Qu’hubo, amigo!” John called out with a big smile. His sandy blond hair was disheveled, he hadn’t shaved in a couple of days and dark glasses covered his blue eyes, but his expression of sincere friendliness reassured the young man. “Cómo estás? Qué cuentas?”

“Señor Yone?” the young man replied, edging through the wild sugar cane stand to the Rover’s window. “Buenos dias! Cómo le va?” He stopped and peered into the all-terrain vehicle, immediately frowning at Julian. “Y éste?”

“Un amigo, de toda confianza. Estamos aquí para hablar con don Enrique. Se encuentra?”

“Un momentico.” The young man pulled a walkie-talkie from his belt behind his back and tried to move away from the car. He spoke into the radio, waited, answered and waited again. He nodded and turned toward John. “Mis camaradas le esperan a un kilómetro. Siga!” He pushed himself back into the cane to let the car pass.

“Gracias, amigo!” John called out as the Land Rover inched past the guerrilla.

A few yards further on, the dirt track disappeared altogether and they followed the path cleared out of the jungle. Julian didn’t know what to say, but he decided then and there that Elisabetta’s friends could find their own goddamned drug supplier. He neither knew nor cared whether his hosts were FARC or ELN. He wanted to tell John to put the Rover in reverse and just leave, even though he knew that was a bad idea. Besides, John was actually looking forward to the meeting. He was a writer and had been promised an interview with the local FARC commander, which had taken months to set up. Nothing was going to stop him now.

“Um, who’d you say I was?” Julian asked, hoping he sounded casual.

“Just some guy, my assistant. Your name’s Jules,” the American replied in his Midwestern twang. “And you’re Jewish.”

The Colombian stiffened. “I’m what!?” he asked, stunned. “How. . . how’d you convince them. . .?”

John snickered. “Easy. I said I needed a translator and you’re a guy I knew in Bogotá, related to my wife’s family. They’re from the coast, Barranquilla. My in-laws, I mean. So don’t say much. Try to shut up.”

“No problem,” Julian murmured. He smiled to himself, and wondered when he could bring this up with Elisabetta, in front of her family. She had an uncle or two who were more anti-Semitic than Hitler. He just wanted to see their faces if they thought the niece on whom they doted was thinking of marrying a nice Jewish boy from Colombia. It would be such a sweet moment.

Another guerrilla emerged from the jungle and pointed to their right, signalling a place to stop. John smiled, nodded and called out a greeting as he turned the Land Rover and came to a stop.

Julian looked around. They were in the middle of a jungle into which had been inserted a camp. There were muddy paths with boards on top of them criss-crossing the ground. There were make-shift tents and wooden tables, and camoflage netting was suspended over everything, even though the tree branches created a pretty thick covering at least 50 ft above the ground.  Slowly, with rifles in their hands, young guerrillas approached the Land Rover, eyeing it suspiciously. When John got out, he did so slowly and kept his hands visible at all times. He took off his sunglasses and left them in the car, and kept smiling. Julian did the same, carefully moving around the front of the car to where John was standing. They thought they heard a radio station broadcasting music, but they thought they were mistaken. They were too far out in the jungle to pick up any signals.

Enrique, the leader, seemed to emerge from the jungle. He was short, with dark hair, dark eyes and a mustache, and maybe in his mid-forties, with a pot belly. He wore rubber boots like the others, and military pants and shirt. He was armed with revolvers on each hip. He was clearly a campesino from the area, with Indian features blended with Caucasian and dark copper skin. He smiled and waved at John as if they were old friends.

Greetings were exchanged, introductions were made and the small group walked over to a long wooden table under a carp. Small plain chairs, more like stools, really, appeared and they sat down, while the youngest guerrillas brought coffee and sugar. It wasn’t even noon and the humidity had risen as fast as the heat. Underneath the formal cachacho exterior, Julian was regretting over and over that he’d ever called John Reilly.

Both John and Enrique were great talkers, and after coffee and then a meal Julian did not want to identify, the aguardiente came out, which created a strong bond of brotherhood between the two men. Every now and then Julian would be consulted for a phrase or a word, but otherwise, he was ignored. He noticed how the shadows were lengthening and wondered if he’d have to sleep out here, and if so, would he be alive the next morning.

But then the gringo and the guerrilla stood up, threw their arms around each other, swore eternal friendship, and the interview was over. Julian volunteered to drive, but John said no, he was fine, it was still light enough to see, and got into the Land Rover. Praying more fervently than the Pope for deliverance, Julian slid into the car. Guided by some guerrillas, John backed the car out of its parking space, turned it and headed back down the grassy path and then onto the dirt track. He didn’t turn his headlights on til they reached the paved road.

“Hey, it’s late and I’m wasted,” John said as they turned onto the highway. “We’re goin’ to my house and have dinner. You can sleep there, okay?”

“Yeah, sure, thanks,” Julian replied, nodding. He hoped John’s house was close to the road, in case he had to hitch a ride back to Popayán. “What did Enrique say?”

“Weren’t you payin’ attention? He said sure, he can get you all the pot you need, and he’ll give you a good rate on the vacuna.”

“The what?”

“Vacuna. It’s just a tax they levy on the pot that’s grown and shipped out. He just needs to know if you’re gonna pick it up in a truck or a plane.”

“Um, truck. Something that’s not obvious.”

“Good idea. So hey, what’s with you and the babe in the hotel in Popayán? Where’s she from? She good in bed?”

“She’s an American and we met in 1967, at Menéndez,” Julian answered a little formally. “Her family’s part of the auto industry in Michigan, although I’m not sure how. It started with a great-grandfather. That much I remember. And her grandfather’s an Englishman.”

John heard the coolness in Julian’s voice and changed the subject.  “Yeah, well, okay. . . So what’re you doin’ in Bogotá? You still livin’ there? I thought you got married.”

“I did, but it didn’t work out.” Julian paused and then went on to tell John about the last few years he’d spent in Colombia and Europe and how he was fronting for a small syndicate that was interested in setting up a drug supply line. The conversation lasted til they got to John’s and had some dinner, which as identifiably steak with rice and some fresh vegetables, plus a beer. Julian was asleep on a pull-out bed by nine o’clock.

Now it was late afternoon in Buga. Grace was rubbing his shoulder lightly, sitting next to him on the lounge chair. He frowned and then, opening his eyes, smiled. “I don’t believe I fell asleep here!” he muttered.

“Yeah, but only for about an hour, I guess. I think I got some nice shots, and when I saw you’d fallen asleep, I took the camera back to the room and got a book.”

“You left me out here?”

“No. I got a book and a Coke and sat down next to you. But now it’s time to put some clothes on and think about dinner.” She leaned forward and kissed him. “And I think we’re kind of stuck with the hotel.”

He nodded. “Yeah, I don’t remember seeing any restaurants when we went out this morning.”

“Neither did I.” She stood up. “But I like the food here, so I don’t mind.”

“Good, ’cause otherwise we’d starve,” he laughed, and got to his feet. He glanced around and then stretched before starting to walk back to their room. His career as a drug trafficker was over, as far as he was concerned.

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