Short Fiction by Victor Hugo Viscarra

The Coffee Vendors of Rodríguez Market

On one of the sidewalks of Rodríguez Market, every night a dozen women set up stands to sell coffee and sandwiches to taxi-drivers who work at night (the majority of whom don’t even have licenses), as well as nocturnal ones who love the night as they love women.

The most well known are Black Antonia, Ely, Pascuala, Nora, Edith and Naty (Nativity to those who know her). Black Antonia—tall, robust, and extroverted, with a body that many celebrities would envy—was a mulata who, thanks to her body, gained fame among clients who came not so much to consume as to get between her legs.

One night I went up to her stand and, after drinking black coffee (I didn’t have money for anything else), she asked me to watch the stand while she went to talk to a driver who called to her from his taxi. She took more than a half-hour to come back, and when she did, she fixed her kinky hair with her hands and asked me what was new. I told her some clients had been waiting for her, and since she hadn’t come back they had left, promising to return. Antonia told me they were pathetic losers, and would surely come back. When they did, Antonia treated them like what they were: pathetic losers. Near midnight I asked her why she had taken so long, to which she answered: “Can’t you imagine? Or are you a pathetic loser, too?”

There were periods in which she changed clothes and at night appeared dressed as a cholita.* For a while she disappeared from the market and the other vendors said she had gotten together with a taxi-driver who prohibited her from selling coffee. But she came back after a few months, dressed like a lady again, and continued to attend to her clients in their cars.

Nora also had a sunny disposition. She was divorced, and although she wasn’t a tenth of what Antonia was, she had clients who pestered her all night long. She died from pneumonia because the rain got her one night. Since she was drunk, and had slept in the street.

Ely is Nora’s sister. She’s fat with desire, and until she was thirty-something she didn’t want to live with anyone, in part out of fear of what they could do to her, but also because no one was valiant enough to ride that bag of fat. Of the cops that make their rounds in this sector, there was one who concealed his impotence pretending to be tough, though he was no more than a pathetic loser. He was one of the ones who bothered Ely, to the point where one day he surprised all of us with the news that he had married her.

She still sells coffee in the market; her husband is a security guard in one of the many banks in the city. When our jokes get out of hand, Ely often threatens us, reminding us that her husband is a security guard in a bank and that he’s always armed, but I think that at bottom, she’s a little disappointed in him.

Pascuala is a chola over forty. She says she divorced her husband because he was a vagabond, a bum, which is what a woman least wants in a man. When she’s drunk, you have to leave her stand because she’ll grab you and force you to drink beer with her and then she’ll want you to go sleep in her room in Tacagua, an area that doesn’t even have streets, much less lighted ones. When you go to her room with her, she might throw you out in the middle of the night without even fucking you.

When she’s sober, it’s another story, because she treats you as if you were her lover, and if you’re a fool, you have to submit to her whimsy. You might think that she knows what to do in bed, but it’s not true, because she just opens her legs and you have to do all the work.

Among the chicks who, not knowing where to sleep, work the coffee stands, there’s Edith. Nobody knows where she came from, and, moreover, she doesn’t answer when you ask about it. She must be about eighteen and always wears real tight pants, as if she wanted to demonstrate to fools that she’s got legs that would be the envy of any decadent fag. At first she would get with anyone, but once the cops started to give it to her, she was lost, and now she only gets with them, as if being the lover of a cop took her to a higher level.

Naty is another cholita who likes cops as well as taxi-drivers. Although she’s still young, the first traces of age have begun to show since she works outdoors so much. She was the one who told me that one had to be nice to the clients, because if one behaved badly, they could go somewhere else, and she wouldn’t earn enough to eat.

*Cholas: Urban Andean women whose “native dress” consists of bowler hats, shawls, and many layers of skirts, worn one on top of the other. British railway workers introduced bowler hats in the late nineteenth century, while the skirts are patterned after those that were in fashion among Spanish “ladies” and their descendants in the Americas in the late eighteenth century

In the Corridor of the Cathedral

On the cold mosaics that adorn this plaza, three rings of the bell have just pealed, signaling to us, the nocturnal ones, dispersed on various benches, that it is exactly 3 AM.

Minutes have passed. The last of the many university students who come to study has left, and excepting my person, not even the souls of purgatory wander through this place. One feels the presence of silence, and if it were not for the trunk of the palm that protects my body, beggars, the blind, and drunks that sleep in the corridor of the cathedral would swear to God and the devil that they’re completely alone in the plaza of this garden city.

In the space assigned to them, the few tubes of neon spread their luminous beams in all directions except the corridor of the cathedral, and even still, I can make out the bundle of the blind woman who, during the day, extends her hands, marked by poverty, to all the faithful and people of so-called good will who enter the cathedral to pray for the souls of those who have passed.

Now she sleeps peacefully between her two children (the oldest, male, the youngest, female), whose ages barely add up to thirty. Some nights there’s no lack of riotous chirping from birds that hop among the leafiest branches of the trees in the plaza, but now the birds have become mute as if they had a premonition of what was to happen in several minutes.

At the far end of the corridor a drunk appears, one of so many who parade their misery through the city, adding their characteristic manner of walking: the typical balancing act of we who accuse the world—and ourselves—of being the direct cause of our physical maladies, as if the position in which our parents engendered us had anything to do with us.

A dry blow of wood is followed by an imitation of a man’s step. Then another dry blow and the blind woman awakens. That’s the sound she was waiting for, anxiously. With haste she sits up on her improvised bedding at the same time as she pushes the body of her son away to make room for another person.

After placing his crutch on one of the steps, and without saying a word, the man sits next to the blind woman and draws his mouth near hers to deposit something that appears to be a kiss. I say “appears” because she has to overcome the revulsion that the toothless mouth produces in her, a mouth fetid like a sewer fallen into disuse, emitting some guttural sounds saturated with chicha and cheap alcohol.*

Ignoring the adolescent pair that sleeps on both sides, the lovers lay down on the floor, and it seems they don’t have enough time to cover themselves with their old blankets; both give themselves over to their passions. The man drops his pants, climbs up on the dale that the woman forms when she opens her flaccid legs, and, without caring a bit about the cold that whips her nude cheeks, begins to ride her frenetically at the same time as he gropes one of her breasts.

Neither of the two kids wakes up to see the Triple X scene. If they were to wake up, I believe they would only bother to change position to go back to sleep, because they know very well it’s not the first time their mother and the drunk have done this. Moreover, the only thing the boy cares about is getting money to buy the drugs he needs to stay high.

Ignorant of everything, his sister, who, they say, will celebrate her fifteenth birthday—if she celebrates birthdays—sleeps off her drunkenness. From the moment she discovered that, offering her young and well-proportioned body to strangers, she could earn some pesos, she gave herself fully to living at its expense.

It’s a well-known secret that her clients invite her to ingest quantities of spirits, since, they contend, it’s more exciting to make love drunk. Now her dreams are not peaceful, because even in her dreams—or better, her nightmares—she feels her most intimate parts molested by unknown shadows.

While my mind has been lost in the corners of what we call voluntary amnesia, from my improvised atrium I observe that the couple has calmed their ardors. After pulling up his pants the clubfoot distances himself along the corridor, disappearing in who knows what direction, happy to have found in his lover the restorative oasis for this, his imperfect pilgrimage.

The blind woman gets up, descends to the sidewalk, gathers her skirts partially, and begins to piss. It’ll be awhile before the rooster sings on the horizon. When day breaks in a few hours, my steps will take me through this corridor again, and I’ll refuse to see the puddle on the floor, because the thing we call consciousness will repel me.

*Chicha: Liquor made from corn fermented by the saliva of elderly women. Cheap alcohol is 97% pure, and in 2004 a small bottle cost U.S. $.20. A liter cost about U.S. $2.10.

Elephant Cemetery

Tembladerani is the area most frequented by alcoholics in La Paz, and perhaps for this reason it has the greatest quantity of cantinas, which serve the most dreadful drinks. For those who want the lighter stuff there are cantinas that serve it. For those who want hard drinks there are also specialized cantinas. And for those who are looking to die at the foot of a canyon—which is to say those who want to kill themselves by drinking until the end—there is Doña Hortensia’s place, better known among the artists as the elephant cemetery.*

A good part of the cadavers that the police collect in the zone are a product of alcohol poisoning, dragged out of her bar in the early morning and thrown in some distant alley so the homicide truck will pick them up.

The place isn’t as macabre as it seems, though. On the contrary, when one goes there to drink during the day it seems welcoming, and it’s not unusual to see artists animatedly sharing their drinks among chitchat and curses.

They serve from 5 AM until 7 or 8 PM, but after having scored enough money, the artist who’s decided to commit suicide can stay on. Not to sleep but to continue the spree all night. The fiesta no longer takes place on the patio, though, because instead of dying intoxicated the suicidal guy could wind up with a cold, so Doña Hortensia makes him enter a small room, and settles him so he can end his existence calmly.

The room is nothing special: the only thing it has is a small table, a chair on its last legs, a rusty lard can in a corner to piss in, and in another corner, an old straw mattress so that the suicide can sleep just enough for his body to digest the liquor consumed.

Since drunks have the shakes of recalcitrant masturbators, Doña Hortensia sells drinks in a plastic tub that holds two liters. So that he will drink—and, lacking a glass—they give him an empty yogurt container; so the guy doesn’t backslide, once they’ve served the first tub of liquor, they close the door with a padlock, whose key Doña Hortensia keeps in one of the pockets of her skirt.

The room remains lit by a bulb all night, and as there is no music to liven up the surroundings, the man can dip his container in the jug, fill it with liquor, and drink it without having to say, “Salud!” to anyone. If the tub should run out on him at some point, he has only to knock on the door, and Doña Hortensia brings another right away. But of course liquor isn’t free: you have to pay as you go. They say food helps fight the damage of liquor on the body, and since that would be bad for business, the woman who enters the room doesn’t give the drunk the time of day. Besides, when you’re drunk, food is the least interesting of things.

They told me there are guys who have lasted two weeks drinking like they were unraveling, without eating a thing, who barely managed to die. There have also been those who don’t last but two days. Regardless, not a week goes by in which at least one does not present himself to ask Doña Hortensia to let him drink to the end.

Among the artists of Tembladerani, especially those that go in the early morning to Doña Hortensia’s to begin the workday, it’s normal to find that someone’s in the room drinking as though liquor was running out. When it’s necessary to throw the dead into the street, around three or four in the morning, there’s no lack of volunteers—after Doña Hortensia scours the pockets of the deceased—to take the dead guy to some forgotten alley so that once it’s daytime, the homicide truck will pick him up. Sometimes Hortensia herself calls 110, saying that in such and such a place, “There’s a man who appears to be dead.” But in general, the neighbors communicate such unpleasant news to the police.

Father Daniel Strecht, a foreign priest who works with alcoholics in La Paz, told me that on one occasion he spoke of the issue with police officials, asking why they did not shut the place down. They responded that for the police, these types of establishments provide something like assistance, because they reduce the number of alcoholics who walk the city streets. These gentlemen don’t know that for every alcoholic dead, there are ten more in line.

In the morning and afternoon, which is to say twice a day, 110 passes by the door of the elephant cemetery, but not to stop drunks from drinking. They go to extort money from the owner so the place can keep functioning.

The guys say there are other cemeteries in the neighborhood, and it could be true. There’s no other way to explain three or four turning up dead from suspected alcohol poisoning each week.

Translator’s note: I have left “artist” as slang for alcoholic, translating artillero as “alcoholic” rather than “artillery man.” Caña is translated as “drunk.”


Victor Hugo Viscarra

Bolivian writer Victor Hugo Viscarra (b. 1958) was an indigent alcoholic in La Paz from the 1970s until his death in 2006, and published five works of literature: Avisos necrológicos (2005), Borracho estaba pero me acuerdo (2003), Alcoholatum y otros drinks: Crónicas para gatos y pelagatos (2001), Relatos de Victor Hugo (1996, 2005), and Coba: Lenguaje secreto del hampa boliviano (1981, 2004). He was honored at Bolivia’s International Book Fair in 2004 and 2005, and each of his books has gone through various printings. He has had an exceptional reception among younger readers.

Forrest Hylton

Forrest Hylton is an historian and journalist who has lived in the Andes on and off since 1995. Hylton is the author of Evil Hour in Colombia (Verso, 2006), and with Sinclair Thomson, co-author of Revolutionary Horizons: Past and Present in Bolivian Politics (Verso, 2007). His essays on Latin American politics have appeared in New Left Review, NACLA Report on the Americas, and, and he has been the South American analyst for The Real News Network. He is currently researching a book on the history of Brooklyn, Containing Multitudes, under contract with Oxford University Press.

"The Coffee Vendors of Rodríguez Market" and "Elephant Cemetery" from Borracho estaba pero me acuerdo (La Paz: Correveidile, 2003). "In the Corridor of the Cathedral" from Alcoholatum y otros drinks: Crónicas para gatos y pelagatos (La Paz: Correveidile, 2001). Translated with permission of Manuel Vargas, executor of the author’s literary estate. English translation copyright (c) Forrest Hylton, 2009.