Fiction - The Wormwood Collective, Absinthe Literary Review

The Battle, and the Cais do Sodré
a short story by Ken Meyers

The world is fading, the fat woman in the purple-flowered dress across from me, the scent of her unwashed body washing over me, Paulo, his sweat and the smell of his unwashed uncut dick, the taste staining me. . . .  She blurs and fades and is gone, and becomes Paulo, becomes nothing.

Low rumble swaying; a sharp jolt at mismatched rails. The open window begs in the airless cell, ranks of cork trees under a sear Alentejo sun. Their trunks mark time. Orange, recently stripped. Black and smooth last year or maybe a year before. Getting browner, rougher as time recycles.

Paulo. His arms are a comfort. The fat lady hands presunto sandwiches to her children and they devour hard rolls, tearing at the thin slice of tough, dry ham as she fades. Paulo. Arms.

His arms, comforting, drift and become Carlos, cobblestone in one hand, knife in the other. He hesitated too long; I had time to draw and unfold and lock mine, across from the Cais do Sodré. He could have run. Instead, he wanted to fight, to keep the 4,300 escudos he hustled from me—street hustler of New York and so naive in Lisboa because it’s Portugal and I can leave my pack where I want because people are so honest and I can walk the streets at night (though, still, never without my knife) because it’s not violent here which is why I want to live here, move here because it’s not New York and I don’t have beautiful Puerto Ricans asking for blowjobs and pulling razor blades, and cute bar-boys slipping Mickeys into my beer that make me play dodge ’ems with taxis. Taxis always win, you know, except that night they didn’t.

I thought too long about how this doesn’t happen in Portugal, and I bled. I thought that maybe he wanted the 5,000 escudos I'd forgotten I'd stashed in my sock, that he never knew was there and which I’d find in the morning stinking of sweat. But this time I don’t think of sweat, and wake and wonder what the fat woman with hams the size of two whole presuntos would look like without her flowered dress, her tits rolling over her midriff rolling over her gut rolling over the orifice that bred these kids crying for sandes.

But even though Lisboa isn’t New York, and I was bleeding and I realized that even though I met this guy Carlos in a gay bar—the Bar Cheque-Mate and I’m not sure if the pun translates—I wasn’t going to suck him either. I might have to kill him. Bar small and dark, bottled beer only, and that pale. No wine, no draft, no one worth talking to. One obligatory beer and I was leaving. But Carlos came in, my age and twenty years younger than anyone else, cute and showing off, coming over and talking to me in English, and that a nice touch in a country where I’m presumed to be French.

We weren’t talking anymore. Somewhere after “Let’s go to my place” and around “What’s the knife for?” “You said it was a bad area, eh?” “I think it’s for me,” there was a swing with a cobblestone and miss, a slash with a knife and miss and then and I don’t know how, but I got his knife and threw it, cheap thing, and I got the rock and threw it but not far enough and he might have reached it but instead he got my knife and suddenly my focus had to be on getting it back and not getting killed by my own steel, which, after all, was so much better than his. To be honest, in a secret aside, I think I was cut up by my own knife; his had to be too dull, cheap thing, but of course details are kind of blurry.

Wrestling and trying hard to stay alive and thinking I might have to kill him, kind of clinically, sort of like watching television and I might have to change the channel. In the middle of a fight there’s only calculation; later, I could be with my emotions, but for the moment, it might as well have been a video game.

I tried to gouge out his eyes and he went for mine. I bit him and he bit back and we pulled each other’s hair and I swore at him in English for swearing at me in Portuguese when he spoke to me in English all night, and in the consummate Portuguese insult I said, “Pocaralho, do you have any balls?” when I tried to crush them and couldn’t find them and was wondering where the large dick he stroked earlier went as I called him “limp dick” groping for any way to hurt him back.

And then quicker than it started, I got my knife and it was over. He fell or I stabbed and a couple inches of Victorinox-Brand Swiss Army knife hit something vital, and it was over. A truncated yelp like a dog under wheels, and tears. The tears hurt most, burning my hand and arm, dripping into my mind and corroding my soul. They soaked me more than the blood draining onto me, more than all his blood could have, more than what I couldn’t absorb, soaking into the grout between polished cobblestones. A sharp cry, and a bit of gurgling just like the movies, and he didn’t want or need my few thousand escudos anymore, worth something less than $30 and that worth killing for.

And just in time, the police arrived, tires squealing and lights flashing and sirens wailing high-low. They looked at me and said something I didn’t understand. I dropped my knife, suddenly realizing that I had a knife and that I was a foreigner and so I yelled “Sou estrangeiro” and someone said “English?” and I said “Americano” not noticing that he wasn’t speaking Portuguese and not knowing if he meant language or nationality anyway. He asked what happened while the other two cops kicked the corpse. I tried to explain and gave up. A spike fell out of Carlos’ pocket. They took my knife and told me to go back to my pensão, the cheap Portuguese hotel with the shared bath I left bloodied. It was clearly self-defense and I could go. And self-defense probably doesn’t even exist under Portuguese law, echo-fascist state; or more likely killing a junkie is helping the cops so it’s okay I guess, but I didn’t care and I don’t care and I am free and back in America where I expect shit like this.

The train lurches and slows and lurches again and stops. Vendas Novas. I’m jolted awake; reality and present and dream and history are one. The smell of presunto and its purveyor let me focus. I’m still in Portugal but the knife fight is behind me, left in Lisboa as I try to trade the nightmare of the Cais do Sodré station for an escape through Fluvial station and a train to the east.

I’m bruised and the cuts have started to heal; I don’t understand, but still, I should try to draw lessons from this, to analyze it and learn so I don’t make the same mistakes again. But I’d rather let the gentle swaying of the train and the airless heat of an Alentejo August soothe me back to sleep. I need the rest. I also need to block out the fight for awhile. Instead, my mind is a hustle-trip of stumbling thoughts. How did he get my knife? Why did I skip town after losing Paulo—literally, I mean, losing him in the dark back alleys of Porto? How could I have not recognized Carlos for the junk angel he was?

My mind can break free. I know it can, and I can try to think of something else but pain and blood, but the effort is useless as I slip back into the Cais do Sodré. And somehow, I don’t care. It just happened and is over and that’s it. No meditation, no consideration—only dreams on trains and wrenched guts in the middle of the night as I jump awake sweating and think it’s blood, as I lie awake for hours desperately trying to think of anything else and only feel tears dripping onto my arm. And then I think, “He shoots. What if he’s HIV pos, with his blood all over me and maybe getting into my wounds?” and sleep is impossible.

The train lurches to a stop. In Évora, I’m supposed to catch the bus that covers the distance to Elvas that the train no longer does, but this is Portugal and the schedule is changed and the bus no longer meets my train. Instead of replaying fights, my mind now has to find the center of town, to find a room and food.

I want to start over. Here is as good or bad as anywhere, inspiring in its own right, ancient city of narrow passages and tourist-abused Roman temple that between then and now served as a Portuguese butcher market. Somewhere here is irony, the ruins of the Temple of Diana, Goddess of the Hunt, centuries later used for hog slaughter, and now, floodlit, leering at me in my own hunt, mocking my slaughter. Irony annoys me. I turn around, grab the next train back to Lisboa.

Onde?” I don’t care. I just want to say anywhere.

Senhor, onde?”

I’m holding up the line. “Porto. São Bento.” As if it matters. The train to anywhere. I’ll take the next train to fucking anywhere.

“725$00.” He slips me a note with the price on it, figuring that I won’t understand “sete centos e vinte e cinco escudos.” Probably right. Numbers give me a hell of a time.

“Huh. Oh. Sim. O comboio parte em dez minutos, sim?” I ask even though I know that the train leaves in ten minutes; that’s why I picked it. I’m just compulsive about these things.

Sim. Linha dois.” Line two. Where? Realization? Agonizing, more likely.

725 escudos. That’s my fix for today. A better trip than the cut hash I’ll be offered when I get off at São Bento Station. A guy in Porto’s gay bar told me, “The hash they offer you, it’s bad. If you take his offer, you’ll get robbed. If you don’t get robbed, he’ll sell you shit. If he doesn’t sell you shit or rob you, he’s new in town and hasn’t learned the game.”

725$00. 125 kilometers. 2 1/2 hours, give or take. Home. The Portuguese have a saying: “Braga prays; Coimbra sings; Lisboa parties; Porto works.” Porto is like New York like that. Working town where I could work too. I walk the few twisting uphill blocks from the station, slipping on the drizzle-damp cobblestone street, wine-drunk, to Residencial Madariz, my Praça da Batalha pensão, and next door, Meia Lua and still in time for supper. São Bento isn’t a random choice.

Meia Lua is my restaurant here, and I know what I’ll order before I enter. Feijoada brasileiro, Brazilian black bean stew served by the beautiful Brazilian mulatto who knows my wine and orders cafezinhos for patrons where espresso is called, simply, café. He wonders about my frantic scribbling in notebooks and my sketching on the paper tablecloth, acts broken more by my gazing into the fluorescent lights than by eating. We are both foreigners but from different realities; he couldn’t understand what drives me here.

I wonder again why I gave up so easily on Paulo, looking for him for only a week, haunting the places we’d wandered, hanging out at O Imperial, the café where we’d agreed to meet the day after we lost each other before we even knew we’d lose each other, waiting from opening to closing in the bar where we met, checking the other gay bars, and cafés, restaurants rumored to be gay. A week, and I left, and then somehow tried to convince myself that Carlos could be Paulo, maybe.

An hour to relax, to screw up courage, to think. An after-dinner café to calm me, followed by a glass of Porto Cálem to fortify me. And then it happens, again. Snap. Lisboa. Cais do Sodré. Knives, blood. This time I didn’t kill him. This time it’s a history I would prefer, where I can get on top of Carlos. I could put him in a headlock and keep him from hurting me anymore, but it was a stalemate. I couldn’t beat him enough to get my money back without letting him go; if I let him go, he might get his knife. At least I’d gotten mine back and it was closed and in my pocket, but not before I gave it one last, long, slow drag across his back, splitting his skin and making him cry out.

A taxi driver stopped and watched, without saying anything, doing anything. He just watched. Carlos yelled for help, the motherfucker, so I just kept yelling, over and over, “Sou estrangeiro, sou estrangeiro.” The driver must have believed me, because when he finally got out of his car, he started kicking Carlos in the head. It was almost comical. He’d kick Carlos, whose head would snap back into the wall, bounce forward and ricochet off the sidewalk. The driver demanded the money that Carlos stole from me, and then kicked again. It was like bouncing a baseball, except for the blood. I struggled to my feet, and kicked Carlos in the face with the spiteful, remorseless, victorious pride that comes with the guilt of knowing that someone’s won a battle for you. Finally, Carlos gave up and threw my money on the ground.

The cops arrived, just in time for it all to be over. Carlos struggled to his feet and ran. They grabbed me, shoving me around and dumping me into the back seat of one of the cars. They drove to a dark corner of a nearby park. They scared me more than Carlos did.

They got me out of the car and questioned me. I was lucky, in a way—the youngest cop spoke English and was sympathetic, and took me to a fountain to wash my wounds; the others were abusive. They caught Carlos a couple minutes later. I identified him; they beat him more, found his needle, broke it, and let him go. I was confused. The English-speaking cop left, and I was left defending myself with broken Portuguese. The other cops confiscated my knife, claiming that it was a prohibited weapon; I later learned that was a lie. Some cop’s son has a very nice Swiss Army knife now; everywhere, cops have cops’ sons. They told me to take a cab back to my pensão; they wouldn’t give me a ride. I decided to walk, to try to mellow out, maybe hoping I’d run into Carlos again and be able to finish it. Instead, I returned to my room.

Um coração que dor venceu!/Enfim, te vejo!” Manuel Bandeira, Brazilian poet of much excellence and favorite of Paulo: “A heart that pain conquered!/At last, I see you!” The restaurant closes; the Brazilian gently rousts me from my daze. The fifteen minutes walk from there to the bar through a cool drizzle will do me good, clear my mind.

Moinho do Vento, the Windmill. Tonight the name strikes me as I hesitate at the door. The way my life drifts, going wherever it is blown and still never going anywhere; the hypnotizing swing of the vanes; the vain hope of this quixotic adventure. What if Paulo is here? We still have nowhere to go to be alone; how would tonight end any differently?

But I don’t really have any choice. Before I decide to knock for entry, I’m recognized and the door is unlocked for me; before I can cross the room, the bartender has my beer ready, Cristal Tipo Muníque, dark and a little too sweet, a beer that no one else drinks, that he stocks just for me. He knew I’d be back, or maybe I never left at all. Paulo hasn’t been back since our last time together, since his disappearance that night, since our date was sent awry by the evil master of my pensão, little troll-man gray and hunched over, living under the steps and barring Paulo’s entry to my room, this still Portugal, Catholic and nostalgic for Salazar, and monarchists waiting for their chance to return.

I take my stool in the corner, and wait. The regulars look at me, talk about me. I have a reputation here, already, for drinking too much and sucking too well, neither a Portuguese skill. I go to piss, and suck off a pretty-boy. He blows me, but I don’t come, I refuse to come, saving myself for Paulo as he swallows my load, and I wipe and leave, and go back to my barstool. My bruises are healed, the cuts scabbed over, and I think about Paulo, whom I accuse of inspiration. Maybe I read too much into our embraces, into our kisses, but I know there was a chance. The way he looked into my eyes, the way we talked about Bandeira and Bakunin in a mass of confused Portuguese and English, neither of us fluent enough to adopt a single language, crafting our own in the only quiet corner of the bar. So much unlike the other bar-boys I meet, with their superficiality and ghetto mentalities. Maybe he feels it too and that is why he avoids this place, or maybe he’s just afraid, scrutinized by family and church, wanting to escape and not knowing how.

He won’t show and I’ll come back tomorrow and a dozen tomorrows more. Across the street, graffiti mocks me: “Realidade vive onde as fantasias morram—nas ruas.” “Reality lives where fantasies die”—in the streets. But as long as this barstool is mine and as long as I can see my reflection in the shattered mirror where I keep my passions, nothing ends. Nothing ends.


© 2003 Ken Meyers

Click here to leave a comment on this story.
Please mention author/title when leaving comments.