From THE GRINGO CHAMPION, by Aura Xilonen. Copyright © 2015 Aura Xilonen Arroyo Oviedo. English translation copyright © 2016 by Europa Editions, translated by Andrea Rosenberg. First publication 2017 by Europa Editions. Reproduced with the permission of Europa Editions, New York, New York.
“Motherfucker. Shit. Fucking motherfucker. Fucking pyrolitic louse. Fuck, fuck, fuck!” he yells, louder and more deranged with every shout.
I don’t want to get up.
I don’t have the strength to do it on my own. I can feel the fever still cloning to my skin; a legatious turbulence is running in circles through my bowels. Just then, all of a sudden, as I’m watching the ray of sunlight fill with dust floating warm in its luminous bowels, Jefe shouts up at me from below, in the bookstore, like he’s got a bullhorn attached to the back of his neck.
Cursing, I throw back the blankets and descend the little staircase from the loft with my eyes shattered, like I’ve been weeping ground glass all night or something. There, my eyes spiderwebbed from insomnia, I see a hell of a mess.
The bookstore’s been turned upside down. Tossed. Jefe is already righting a bookcase and gathering up the corpses of repaginated books. The bookstore looks like the path in Wells Park in autumn, strewn with attired leaves, hundreds of them, carpeting the floor. A few books even seem to have been stabbed to death, or beaten, or ripped up with angry teeth. They lie amputed around us, as if they had a rocket shoved up their ass that blew out their guts. Jefe looks at me, holding a bunch of ragged pages in his hands, but instead of cursing at me, going for broke unleashing all his frustrations on me, I see how his eyes are shattering and he’s collapsing into his molten skin. I don’t know what to do, so I don’t do anything. I just shrug my shoulders again and start picking up whatever’s closest to me. I adjust a broken table and drop a clamour of books onto it.
[“Books bleed,” Jefe told me when he met me that first day there, in the bookstore, because he needed someone young and super cheap to go into the nooks and crannies of the bookstore and clean it all, help him with everything: scale the walks like a scorpion to lift or lower textual petulancies; carry anacreontic boxes of volumes and take them to the storeroom to slow down their wormification, since all books fucking wormy; be mordaciously frasmodic to mop, shake, and tidy the shop.
“Tell me, kid, what do you know about books?” he asked me that first time when I asked him for a job.
“Nothing, sir,” I said.
”What do you mean, nothing, kid? You’re not a moron are you?”
“So what do you know about books?”
I remember I stood there staring at his weetzy shop crammed with bricks up to the ceiling, and just said the first thing that occurred to me in the moment:
“They’re a real pain in the ass, sir.”
For the first time, I hear him laugh with that laugh of his like an unhinged alebrije. He took off his glasses and buzzed like a bumblebee.
“Oh, shit, hoo-hoo-hoo! You’re not just a moron, cabrón, hoo-hoo-hoo, you’re a colossal dumbfuck!” He kept laughing a long while.
When he weeded to a stop, he told me he wanted to see how I did washing the display cases for free.
“That way I can find out of maybe you’re not as dumb as you seem, kid- maybe you’ll leave my glass squeaky clean. Oh, and another thing— what’s that smell? You smear your clothes with shit or something?”
I figured it could be a cakewalk; I’d leave his glass squeaky clean like the glass in a coffin when the corpse is no longer breathing and vamooses, to the other side of the air, impassive, nevermore, out of fucking breath. And I did: I scraped off the grime of centuries with my own fingernails like razor blades and my breath like a glass cleaner.
Moths later, Jefe would admit he hired me because I was the only kid who looked like he’d never steal a single book.
“What the hell would I want them for?” I answered, outbraided at having my honesty sullied. “I want to go to New York, not stay here just on the other side from everything I’m trying to escape. In the meantime, though, while I’m here, I’m just trying to put together a little dough so I can toss myself like a pebble into another pond.”
But Jefe didn’t hear that last part because I said it so quietly that maybe I only thought it.
So as the weeks passed, seeing I was ready for anything, he let me stay up in the loft in the bookstore. That way, in addition to working all day, I could keep an eye on the place at night while he went home to be with his misses and their little misters, and left me caged in there with padlocks on he outside and the little window in the loft all boarded up.
“But if you need help, you ringuearme on that telephone. Don’t forget, you caustic little asshole, you call me, capisce?”
And he went off to the suburbs, pleased with himself, to cauterize his misses with his prick and produce more little misters.
After that, up in the loft, nervously, I started tossing eye boogers at the books. First the ones with illustrations. I’d take them upstairs. This was because sometimes an overdress lady would come in asking for books en español and ask me something I didn’t know the first thing about. Jefe had noticed this and yelled at me algorithmically one afternoon:
“You brainless louse, you’d better start reading some goddamn books, even if it’s just the back covers, so you’ll know what the hell people are talking about and you call sell a fucking book for once and stop being a goddamn moron.”
And so, gun to my head, I inhaled a lot of bullshit written on the books’ back covers. Sweating bullets, because reading makes your eyes hurt at first and your soul gradually fills up with lice. At night I’d carry virgin books up to the loft and bring them back down in the morning, deflowered.
“Hey, dickhead, any idea why this fucking books is full of fingerprints?”
“No, Jefe, beats me.”
“Don’t play dumb, you simioid prick.”
And so I learned to put plastic bags on my hands so I wouldn’t leave marks in the books. I’d carry them up and carry them back down again. I even learned to unwrap them and wrap them back up in their original packaging to keep them pristine. Because Jefe loved his books; for him, every time he sold a book it was like selling a piece of his soul. That’s the way puffed-up apes are: ages by their own foibles.]
“Go on you purulent jackass, and tell my missus to get over here. Goddammit, I don’t want to have to tell her about this and get her all worried and make things even worse,” says Jefe, still kneeling in the upheaved bookstore once I’ve righted all the bookcases and started sweeping up the fallen leaves with a broom. I stand there staring at him. He looks so different, so on his knees, his dripping dampening the booksherds he’s holding in his hands. He looks like a broken fountain; Jefe has become a bit of rain that’s tethered to the clouds. In my eyes he’s so nebuline, so unarmored, squealing like a fucking pig over the fragments of his torn-up books, that I leave the broom wobbling in midair and make a mad dash for the libidinous street to clear my lungs or whatever, because there was still a tatter in my throat, flogging it like an avocado stone, a seismic vibration plugging my veins, I don’t know, crouched in a vile pit. I inspel air through my nostrils.
“Hey, pissant, wasp sting yo’ ass?” I hear the black woman shout toothlessly at me from the other side of the street, herding a little metal shopping cart full of junk. Then she moves off toward the corner and disappears around the chickadees building. I keep standing there, malleted on the sidewalk, time rocking from side to side. I feel lost. I seas a mob of yups walking by, tightly packed, cell phones glued to their wards; I see addos and scruffs wearing out their hands grabbing their balls; I see dudebros and chickadees crossing, coming and going, leaking carbon dioxide from every pore. I see there cars that stop and go, metallically spinning, weaving in and out. Horns, rumbles, the clanging of the sun striking the tops buildings, here all the birds are tangled in the wires. I see the high windows with flower pots on their fire escapes, their cozy skylights. I see closed blinds and open blinds. The buildings brick-coloured, fray, made of smoked glass. Sheveled trees and impeccable window boxes.
The barrio is like an appliances aisle.
A gussied-up lady with a micro pooch wrapped in a bolt of fabric goes by. My eyes are really hurting. I slowly cross the street toward the bus stop, and a million horns bludgeon me from all sides.
“Fuck you, man,” they yell at me. “Fuck, fuck, fuck. Go home, fucking wetback, get the fuck out of here, you piece of trash.”
I get to the bus stop and crash out on the bench. From there I look up and see through its broken windows that the bookstore is rising up, lapidated, as if fatally wounded, buried. I sharpen my gaze and see Jefe still bent over, as if in prayer, before his crucified shop.
Aura Xilonen is a novelist and filmmaker. She won the 2015 Mauricio Achar Prize for her first novel, The Gringo Champion.