Same Day, July 17, 1996 10:48PM: Buenos Aires, Argentina
February 10, 2012 § 1 Comment
For those of you who dare, this is the second chapter (the first is here, still).
One of the characters is reading El Clarín, which is a popular and central newspaper in Argentina. And, as TWA Flight 800 is real, Hojjatoleslam Ahmad Musavi is a real character, though highly fictionalized here so as to avoid condemnation. Others, Gardel, Evita Perón and Maradona — el Che — are of course real.
The rest — I’m responsible for putting you through this …
El Clarín, on the lower right hand side of its front page, in a small tight square unnoticed by most of its readers even as they licked the tips of thumb and index finger and turned to the paper’s next page, reported that an unidentified Middle Eastern man was found dead in a dingy alley near the Rocha Bend of the Riachuelo in La Boca.
Artists and laborers in red, yellow, blue-green chapa houses, built at the dawning of a nation by Italian immigrants working in nearby meatpacking plants and warehouses in Buenos Aires’ oldest neighborhood, aroused by first light, awakened to a coiled body in fetal position, throat cut from ear to ear, face down and eyes wide open submerged in coagulated gutter water and floating cigarette butts. Winter flies gathered the spittle.
Víctima de juego sucio, reported El Clarín.
“I hope he’s not here,” said Marcelo Abendroth in a whisper, his long, delicate hand outstretched over the story of the dead Middle Eastern man in El Clarín laying opened on a flimsy table in the dim Rincón Café in San Telmo. He looked down at the story and stared at it for some time. Then he carefully drew his café to the edge of his thin lips so as to avoid being stung by its heat.
He scoped the Rincón. A gilded portrait of a young Carlos Gardel, fedora at an angle over the tangista’s upturned brow, hung side-by-side with the Madonna sagrada, Evita Perón, over the murky bar. Abendroth grinned. A dozen small fat candles in constant vigil beneath the portraits flickered a quiet light onto a mahogany bar and scarred it with a melancholy wax. The bar was an altar , an homage to an imagined Argentina. Bottles of wine and whisky and gin and absinthe from France stood without order – whisky next to wine, cognac and warm cokes and vodka. At the end of the bar next to the television held high on a homemade wooden shelf was a signed poster of a youthful Diego Maradona in his blue and yellow of better days. The poster was tacked into the plaster wall.
Near Plaza Dorrego, the Rincón was the local café, the nexus for life’s transitions. On its wounded external brick wall was a spray painted caricature of a youthful Che Guevara, in his boina and scraggly beard, frozen for posterity. And beneath the image of the Argentine doctor from Rosario, in blood red: Until Victory Always!
Marcelo Abendroth wore a brown gabardine suit, a dark blue wool turtle neck and Italian loafers without socks. He had taken off his jacket and draped it behind his seat. Abendroth had skeletal shoulders and a spindly neck. He rolled his sleeves half way up his forearm exposing fine wrists. A Rolex dangled like a woman’s bracelet from his right wrist.
Abendroth looked down at the newspaper, again, and moved his hand to the side and glanced at the story. He read the headline out loud: “Víctima de juego sucio.” And raised his conditioned eyebrows to show indignation. “Very Argentinean, the knife,” he said sternly – as stern as he could be given his demeanor. “I hope that Abu Dokhan lives up to his name. And vanishes. I hope he didn’t have anything to do with this.”
Hojatoleslam Ahmad Musavi had eyes that were outsized portals as black as night. They fell on a thick weariness that told a story of an anguished life. Musavi’s face was round and wide. He ran his hand over his bald head – a sign of his frustration with Abendroth’s questions about the whereabouts of the smoke-bearer, Abu Dokhan.
But Abendroth noted how Musavi brightened when he heard the name of the most wanted Lebanese. Musavi sat up and eased his hand down his burly face and rubbed his bulbous nose as if he suddenly had an itch. The table trembled from his weight. Hairs protruding from his nose were like ivy entangled in a moustache that covered his upper lip. Abendroth looked away in disgust.
“Hezbollah calls him The smoke-bearer, the Abu Dokhan. That’s what it means, smoke-bearer. He vanishes like smoke,” said Hojatoleslam Ahmad Musavi with pride. “All westerners think we Arabs are related or that we know each other intimately. Everyone knows who Hajj Radwan, the Abu Dokhan, is – that’s his real name. Hajj Radwan. But I. We,” he said pointing to Abendroth and then himself. “We have nothing to do with him, my friend. And I have nothing to do with this dead man.”
“In this country all Arabs are implicated, I’m afraid – first the Israeli Embassy is bombed, then AMIA is leveled,” said Abendroth. “I’ve been told that the dead man had a bird stuffed in his mouth.”
“A bird? What kind of a bird? It’s not in the paper,” said Musavi. He spoke as if he was gargling with marbles. He leaned towards the much smaller Abendroth. Musavi seemed to be about to swallow him.
“They don’t want to alarm people. We Argentineans are a superstitious lot. A canary.”
“Ah. Someone has indeed sent a message.”
Musavi sipped his bitter black coffee, eyes on Marcelo Abendroth, Director of the Economic Education Trust, a subsidiary of Triad Management, a consulting firm concentrated on information and influence ; it mines special interests for investors in the United States that look to expand their holdings and have some bearing on power.
“I love the coffee in your country. It reminds me of home,” said Musavi, his thick lips expanding into a smile that made his face even wider.
“The destruction of the Israeli Embassy and AMIA are not subtle messages, Musavi. Not at all. What’s next? There’s always a next. Something. Always more, something else,” Abendroth said leaning forward over his espresso. But he immediately relaxed because he knew from Musavi’s blank gaze that there wasn’t going to be a response. Abendroth was not one to push. He smiled coquettishly, which was his way when he was nervous. He looked down at his hands, palms down, and rubbed the tops of his finger nails with his thumb as if he was removing dust. He admired their luster.
“Abendroth. In German it means evening or dusk, does it not? Argentineans are always on the lookout for Germans. It must make you self-conscious. Nervous perhaps. No? The indictment in people’s eyes when they know – and suspect. Similar to what we Arabs feel. So you must understand that Hajj Radwan, the Abu Dokhan, is a coincidence – that’s all.”
“Coincidence. The Israeli Embassy and the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association, the AMIA itself after the embassy. Coincidences, Musavi? Suddenly this dead man. What are you hiding? We’re always hiding something.”
“Money is truth, Mr. Abendroth,” said Musavi in his thick accent. “The only truth. Nothing else. Money. It creates democracies. And it can create autocracies and dictatorships and whatever we need it to do. Money can hold whoever we want in power, for as long as we want. Money paves roads. And sometimes, as you say, it can hide things.”
“It depends on the story, Musavi. It has to be the right story. Freedom has a price. It’s a balancing act. That’s the world we’re in. Our world. And you want to play in it so you must tow the line, Musavi. With care. Or you might not be let in. Entrance comes at a price.”
Marcelo drew his espresso and then waved to the sleepy waiter.
“Ajenjo. Para los dos, por favor,” he ordered.
“Ah bien. La fée verte. Muy bien. Perfecto.”
Marcelo Abendroth leaned towards Musavi as if he didn’t want to be heard. “At our first meeting in Iguazu, I remember the smoke-bearer. He was there. I remember. He was with you. In your entourage. I can see him there plainly. Like it was yesterday. I saw him. I remembered him when I read this story. This was before the embassy. Before any of it. This dirty business. What are you doing, exactly, Mr. Musavi? What can you say to me? If it’s learned that Hajj Radwan was with you – it’s obvious no? People would think. Put two and two together.”
“Anyone could have done this killing. Someone could have been angry at this guy because he said something foul against Boca and fútbol passions ran wild and they cut his throat after too much drink. Maybe he was a River fan. Look where we are, Marcelo. This is not uncommon in your country. It could have been a woman – because of a woman. The signs are there – the knife. The knife is always used when a woman is involved. It could have been the Iranians. Who’s to know? Or maybe it was that psycho al-Gaddafi – he has a bone to pick with your president. Menem’s an Arab, too, after all, and word is, he crossed Gaddafi. On the street I hear that your president reneged on a missile deal. You can’t take ten million dollars from Gaddafi, not give him anything in return and get away with it. Come on. Your people should know better. Perhaps Gaddafi is paying him back – a warning. Maybe that’s the message. A message from Gaddafi. Don’t cross me Menem or next time it will be closer to home.” Musavi paused and looked down at his black café, put his thick hands around the tiny cup and, as his large round shoulders came up around his head and he looked like a giant sea turtle, said, “And maybe it was the CIA. You know they’re everywhere and they like it down here. They like your country, all those Germans smuggled in – who could have imagined that American military power was built with Nazi know-how? And it came through here, your country, Marcelo. It’s very easy here. It’s chaotic and delightfully confusing. Anything is possible in your country. Everything can be done here. People are wonderfully distracted. That’s why we all like your country. Certain countries exist to facilitate the needs of others. The legacy of the Cold War, I’m afraid. We have to live with it. Adjust. Isn’t that how we’ve evolved? It’s the probable course of things. And who’s to know? Maybe the CIA is fronting for Gaddafi or the Iranians, maybe both. It’s all possible. It depends on which way the story will be turned. Isn’t’ that what you said? We’re all in this twist now – twisted together in a coil, stories intertwining, running into each other, infecting one another. We can’t escape it. History, the present, the future – they’re all intertwined and confused. No one knows the truth. No one knows where we’re going. We have to create new truths. New rules. I don’t recall Hajj Radwan there with us. I’m sorry, Marcelo, I don’t. Not at all. Maybe you’re mistaken. You westerners think we all look alike. It’s not just. Not just at all. We Arabs don’t know each other. We’re not all related. The eye is fickle, my friend.”
“And the heart is worse.”
“Perhaps. Perhaps you’re right. Maybe the Iranians, maybe Gaddafi. The CIA. We don’t know anything about this dead man. And, yes, the embassy and AMIA are messages, indeed. That’s all. Messages, Marcelo. The result of something much larger. Eventually we’ll set a good course, catch the right wind with the right force. Perhaps Hajj Radwan has been here – perhaps not. We will never know. Unsavory characters know how to blend with the rest of us. They blend and wait – and then strike. A friend today can kill you tomorrow. And never be found again. Maybe getting away with a thing like that is the ultimate freedom. An aphrodisiac – the most powerful of all. What’s a life worth, anyway?”
Abendroth lit a cigarette and inhaled with the deep satisfaction of someone who smoked because it eased him. Musavi leaned back in his chair and extended his arms, his hands holding the edge of the delicate table, and took in the contentment of watching Abendroth’s unease.
A bandoneon cried out Gardel. El día que me quieras.
The bandoneon player, all in black like the night echoing through the front window behind him, was lost in the woe oozing from his fingers moving instinctually up and down the white keys that shone like the moon. El día que me quieras.
Musavi studied Abendroth. A full silence fell between them.
“I’m not sure about all this Musavi,” Abendroth said in the semi darkness of the Rincón. He was hesitant.
“We’re merely trying to learn to live in the world that has been created by you westerners.”
Musavi took a red pack of Dunhills from his pocket and lit a cigarette, too. He held the cigarette between his thumb and index finger. Inhaled. And exhaled slowly and leaned forward and flicked the edge of his cigarette into a tin ashtray between them.
The bartender turned on the old black and white TV at the end of the bar and its radiance fell on the dim Rincón. The bartender reached for the rabbit ears and adjusted them and a coarse picture came into view as if traveling a great distance through fog.
… A las 20:45 horas, once minutos después de despegar del Aeropuerto Internacional Kennedy, el vuelo 800 de TWA, con destino a París, Francia, se estrelló en el Océano Atlántico frente a la costa de Long Island…
Marcelo Abendroth turned towards the TV, a disturbing blue-gray eye, an unannounced brightness that pushed aside the solemn comfort that can exist among strangers, and took a drag of his cigarette.
Suddenly the TV picture was gone and a scratchy graininess shoved Gardel’s sadness, jostled it, and brought forth another.
The bandoneon player kept on, his melancholy persistent, like mourning.
“Carajo. Puta. Qué mierda,” the bartender railed.
“Chin,” said Musavi, raising his absinthe. “Salud. It’s done. The future is ours. Let’s not cry over what’s past. We’ve done well together – and we’ll do more. We understand each other. And we have a place to start. A starting point. We’re in deep. And we’re going deeper. When there are no answers to a puzzle, my friend, the only solution is to go in deeper, dig further into the maze. It’s the only way. There’s no turning back. There’s only going deeper.”
Marcelo Abendroth turned away from the TV and raised his glass to Musavi’s. “I suppose you’re right,” he said. “To forging ahead. Going deeper. Here’s to the labyrinth. Salud.”
“Al futuro,” said Musavi. “Nuestro futuro.”
They pulled their heads back and swallowed the warm ajenjo and slapped their short glasses on the table. The table shook and creaked. Musavi looked up at the black television screen.