by Maxime Raymond Bock
translated by Pablo Strauss
Coach House Books, 2016
Robert “Baloney” Lacerte, the eponymous hero of Maxime Raymond Bock’s newly translated novella, is an aging, washed-up poet with more creative spirit than apparent talent. The narrator is a disillusioned young writer who encounters this odd, eccentric character lurking on the edges of the Montreal poetry scene and sees, in the old man’s crazy tales, a possible key to unlocking his own crippling writer’s block. So he sets out to record Robert’s reminisces, but will soon find that he can’t just take someone else’s stories without being willing to offer something in return.
As the following excerpt opens, our hapless hero had last been seen on his way to Montreal after spending the 1960s in Sherbrooke, Quebec, living an approximation of the hippie lifestyle. He was, at the time, in the company of his friend, Simon, a carefree painter who had encouraged Robert’s poetic illusions. Now, it appears he has found himself attempting to earn his keep on a Mexican hacienda after some sort of Latin American adventure gone horribly wrong…
He dreamed of monsters coming over the horizon, straddling mountaintops the way you pull yourself out of a pool, arms first, then a leg. Perched there like vultures, they looked out in his direction, watching for the signal to traverse the plains in four strides and lay waste to everything in sight. But they just stayed put, glued to the mountains, foaming at the mouth, growling and uprooting trees by the handful as easily as clumps of moss. With giant talons they crumbled mountaintops like cornbread; spurred on by their own applause, they crushed one after another, sending whole rock faces hurtling down like grains of sand. Their growling mixed in with explosions, muffled by stone walls and muted by distance, reverberating through the valley before reaching him a few seconds later. It sounded like a nearby village being strafed on a summer night, all quiet but for the irregular blasts of faraway bombs, that moment you suddenly understand, in a shelter that can do nothing to protect you, that it will all be over soon.
Robert awoke to a sharp tap on the sheet metal inches above his head. Was some all-powerful demon showering him with mountain gravel from great heights? Or was it just Luis, throwing rocks to fuck with him? He raised his chest and propped himself up on his elbows. There was no way to sit up without hitting his head on the diagonal wall of this lean-to he slept in, a stump of wood and warped metal jutting out from the side of a stable like a mushroom next to the rusted-out carcass of a car. It had been a doghouse until the dog died and wasn’t replaced. Then it had been a tool shed for a while, and Robert moved in after Luis kicked him out of the volunteers’ shed.
It was a dark, hot night that should have been glassy and moonless like all the rest but wasn’t.
The cattle were shuffling around their pen, not far from the stable, kicking up dust that filled the air and nostrils. A cow’s lowing leapt an octave. Robert closed his eyelids, then opened them, to compare degrees of darkness. Inside and out were one and the same. He pressed his index fingers down on his eyeballs – they were hard to the touch, and he felt tiny shocks on his retinas, and kept pushing on his closed eyes a few seconds longer for the novelty of seeing circles in the darkness, circles rolling to the left when he pushed them to the right. Stretched out with his bundle tucked under his head, he heard the distant rumble roaring over the valley as the monsters pulverized another summit. The sheet metal started clattering again. No, not stones: it sounded not like a cracked cymbal, more like a bell damped by a hand, striking ever faster and over and over and over. After a moment of disbelief he understood: it was raining on his lean-to. Which meant it must be raining on the stable, pouring down on the fields and on the animals and over the entire hacienda. The plantation was drinking up the moisture that would save it from drying up completely. The toughest of the cows would be saved. He searched for his lighter in the bundle, but came up only with a pencil and a candle stub in among loose sheets of paper and clothing. The water was dripping in along the slant of the metal roof, slowly being imbibed by the sand on the ground. Robert listened to the falling drops for a long time, eyes open, in darkness sporadically shot through by lightning. He reached through the opening between the plank wall and the ground and turned his palm skyward.
For the first time since settling here, water was coming to him. How many gallons had he drawn from the well and then hauled through the fields to the drinking troughs? No one had counted. How many drops had overflowed the rims of the twin buckets held by a crooked pole that left a callus the size of a ten-peso coin on his seventh cervical vertebra, only to evaporate the second they hit the ground? No one knew. The earth kept no records. Between the slats of his hovel, the lightning appeared a few seconds ahead of the unsounded rumbling. The mountain and valley were under attack, not by the gringos or ancient Maya resurrected, but by the elements that had been biding their time since he washed up here, far off the map in deepest Mexico. The hacienda had been losing the battle to drought. Thanks to this storm, it might survive a little longer. This new beginning would be celebrated by Don Alejandro, prancing around in his insufferable charro getup. He’d probably invite the mariachi band from town. Young Nahua women would come down from the mountain to dance in a garland-festooned courtyard. They’d chase decapitated cocks, a few young farmers would announce their betrothal, and Doña María would insist that one and all give praise to the Señor, out loud and at length, for this deluge.
The miraculous hammering on the metal convinced Robert to get out. An event of such rarity, sure to go down in the history of the region, a milestone in the lives of all who experienced it, demanded more from him than lying in the mud of his hovel observing grey flashes through the rotting planks. His bundle was soaked but it held nothing of consequence beyond a pouch of tobacco and a few sheets of paper. Robert remembered every word he had written. And he’d managed to mail his last notebook to Yves a few weeks earlier. Seven times he had handed over a bundle of change and a full notebook addressed to his brother, in exchange for a virgin replacement, to the pedlar who delivered mail to the hacienda in a busted-up truck. These regular packages were the one way Robert had to maintain some semblance of a sense of time. Two pages a day. One hundred and ninety-six per notebook. He must have been working at the Ordoñezes’ foundering ranch for two years. The volunteers called him Perdito. Luis, the foreman, knew he was wasn’t worth his salt, but had told Robert the other volunteers all believed in his talent because he never stopped writing except when he was working. They all listened in respectful silence to the poems he recited in his incomprehensible language while they walked side by side through the rows of corn, or washed the cattle, or patched the roofs, or drove posts for a new enclosure.
Robert stood upright under the vertical downpour, hair pressed down over his face, oily wet-dog smell steaming from his beard, feet slopping around in sand-filled, waterlogged leather sandals. On clear days you could see miles down the valley into the western mountains below, normally darkhued, but orange when the sun obliged. Under a full moon you could walk without a lantern and watch the sorrels standing in the pasture land like sandstone statues, their stillness troubled only by the occasional flick of a tail. He knew the stable was intact. So was the wall encircling the hacienda and main outbuilding; he could see them in the lightning. But the mountains had disappeared, and in the flashes you could just barely make out the cattle in the pens below, huddling close to shield themselves from the apocalypse. The lightning was striking with increasing violence and frequency. Wind rose up to buffet the columns of rain. Now the lightning hit right in front of him, and Robert couldn’t hear his own cries as he was thrown back. It had surely been drawn by the lone tree two hundred paces off, in the middle of the field, where the farmhands gathered for their afternoon siesta. He closed his eyes and imagined the tree ripped top to bottom by a sawmill, black and smouldering as each half split away like an error, the charred bodies of sleepers clinging to its roots. The raindrops were spanking the top of his skull and his shoulders with improbable force, he thought, as he lifted his chin, face-up to the night. Behind his eyelids he felt new electrical shocks, this time a kaleidoscope of colours and formless blobs swallowing each other and spitting each other out, and then everything turned momentarily red when a new round of lightning cleaned the slate. It was spectacular, despite the pain every drop inflicted on his eyes and his face chapped by salt and burnt by the perpetual sun. Sepia-toned memories flooded back – a viscous belt fight between his cousin Jean-Claude and a bully, swimming in the lake on the other side of Mount Tremblant, a broken limb splayed at ninety degrees, sugar loaves melting on a sideboard, Denis in the emptiness of the forest, a baker pulling a putrid pie from the oven, Simon unable to sketch the repulsive face of an American woman with a swollen goitre and enucleated eyes, and then spiders, spiders by the dozen in the yellow jungle.
The din changed in tone: in place of the muffled sound of rain on earth was a percussive splattering of heavy rain on pooled water. In daylight he could have seen the grime dripping off his sweaty, dusty clothing, seen the filth and stench he no longer even noticed wrung from his clothes, light garments grown so heavy with the water, clinging to his body like a new skin grown over an older one ravaged by sun.
His bundle hung from his hand like a saturated sponge. A stream as thick as his wrist poured forth. He let it drop. With his face still angled toward the sky, eyes closed, mouth open, he raised his arms and spread them into a cross, the better to feel every drop pricking his wrists, then little by little he reached up toward the source of the water, as high as he could, to feel the water sooner.
Years earlier, with water whipping his head and an eddy swirling around his feet, he had been caught off guard by an explosion. His comrades were unarmed, as far as he knew, and he trusted them. They hadn’t seen other people for days. With arms upraised, momentarily stunned by the sun and the water on his face, he turned around slowly and saw Simon floating naked, face down, swaying in the current. Leandro and Raúl were still as statues on the riverbank in front of four assholes in military peacoats pointing their machine guns and barking orders. No one noticed when Robert pissed himself. He wanted to walk up to Simon, to turn him onto his back, but two of the men stepped forward, feet in the water now, and started yelling even louder. Robert got out of the swimming hole, buck naked, and joined his friends with guns pointed at their chests.
While one man searched their bags and the pockets of the clothes they had thrown on the ground, another spat questions at Leandro, punctuated with thrusts of his gun. Robert looked at Simon – hair and arms, ass and heels sticking out of the water, still-raw lines inscribed on his back by the thicket they got caught in the previous day. He’d torn his jacket and swore his head off while the others laughed at him. For the first time, Robert noticed how thin his friend had become. He pictured them in Sherbrooke, in what felt like another century, drunkenly stumbling in each other’s arms in the Wellington Street slush. The waterfall’s eddy gently pulled the body toward the edge of the pool. Ripples, ferns and roots troubled the surface; blood coloured the water. If he hadn’t been killed instantly, Simon would surely have drowned, unconsciously perhaps, without suffering, one hoped. How could this have happened? Why was Leandro, their peace-loving friend and leader of this trip since they met at a Lima café, now lying on the ground, held by his hair with a pistol at his throat? There was no clear or easy explanation. Robert had no plea to make. Even if his Spanish were up to the task, it wouldn’t have registered through his moans and sobs. The man searching their bags alerted the leader. He’d found a volume of Octavio Paz, a bilingual Neruda, some notebooks and a small red-bound volume in a foreign language. They were yelling now, pressing Raúl’s face against a book held open on the ground, like you would shove a puppy’s nose in its urine to teach it a lesson. The leader came toward Robert to force him to hurry up and get dressed. One of the men leaned toward the body, grabbed on to a foot, dragged it to the water’s edge and flipped it over. You couldn’t recognize the mud-splattered face, the beard clumped with dirt, the mess covering his chest – there was no way to find the black hole, the blood and guts, the digested matter, the bones, the light, the hope. The leader held Robert at gunpoint, while his free hand pointed toward the bags, the body and Leandro; he bombarded Robert with questions that would more likely have yielded answers if he’d slowed down and addressed him like a child. Robert kept repeating the same phrases: habla francés, habla francés, canadiense francés. Leandro stood up again. They let him speak. After a few sentences the leader came toward Robert and pushed him in the back, toward Peru, suggesting he be on his way. Leandro also pointed north. The men picked up the books, bags and clothing and walked off in the opposite direction in single file: three in front and the fourth behind Raúl and Leandro. They left Simon’s body lying there, cock out, skin covered in mud, arms spread over his head, hand in the water. For a second Robert thought he should die right here with his friend. But the voices rose up again, muffled by the vegetation, and his instinct told him he’d be better off dying somewhere else.