Debouchment

Debouchment

There was the plantation boss, she remembered. A very decent man, really, even if it’s true there was a killing connected to him. It seems he had done it, she remembered, that was the connection. . . .

A short story.

Ernest Hemingway and friends at El Floridita, Havana, Cuba, circa 1955

“Our life here isn’t particularly violent,” the woman said, after the other woman made the comment that it was. This happened at the Pan-American club. In an era after the Spanish ate the parrots to extinction (while the natives stuck to grilled banana heart), and before the Russians came, with their Brutalist architecture and their smoked pig’s fat.

“I’m not saying there isn’t violence,” the woman continued. “But violence and violent are different. It’s the difference between incident and intent.” Some features of this in-between time, at the Pan-American club: Black Forest–style castles in sugar cane fields, saltwater swimming pools reflecting tessellated rectangles of sunlight. And cinema palaces with love seats in the back row.

Although there was the plantation boss, she remembered. A very decent man, really, even if it’s true there was a killing connected to him. It seems he had done it, she remembered, that was the connection. But that was in Louisiana and a long time ago. Mr. Flamm, the paymaster, was killed, true enough. But that was the blacks, and their love of chopping people up with those horrific machetes they carry around. They really do look like savages and it’s the strangest thing to hear them speaking French—

Also in this in-between era, after the Spanish, who cooked their parrots so slowly they remained alive as they were removed from the oven, and before the Russians, who took the scrubbers off the chimneys and let the red dust rain down: A dictator’s estate, with artificial waterfall and presidential barbershop, a divorcée’s mausoleum, with amber Lalique windows, and the addition of cheval-de-frise on the low walls of Spanish colonial buildings, to prevent vagrants from sitting.

Those who hadn’t gone to the Pan-American club were at home listening to the faith healer on the radio. His was the only program, this time of night. Unless you wanted to listen to the bandits illegally broadcasting from their camp in the mountains. Bearded ruffians instructing people to burn sugar cane, to tie a kerosene-soaked rag to the tail of a rat and set him loose in the cane break.

Also in this in-between era, before the Russians and their Brutalist apartments, and after the parrots, who looked up from the dinner plates as their wings were sawed off with serrated knives: a supply of what are called black pineapple grenades—philological proof of destruction’s commitment to the Tropics.

The woman had said loudly, for everyone in the club to hear, that she was sick of all the violence. “To here,” she’d slurred, and put her hand up to her neck. She was drunk, as everyone was, most of the time. She was not a person to be taken seriously. The type of woman who bleaches her hair and then dyes it dark again, in order to get that coarse, ratted, bedroom effect. After she said it she started an argument with her husband. Some women are very skilled at that. As soon as he started to fight back, she dropped her drink on the marble floor as a diversion.

A constant in all three eras: syphilis, tobacco, and trees with fruit whose flesh is the pink of healthy mucus membranes. A fruit that smells like women’s shampoo.

“Put a glass on the radio and my voice will serenade it,” the faith healer told listeners. Those who were lucky enough to go to the studio had their water serenaded with his flashlight beam. “Buy lottery tickets with numbers ending in six. In four. In zero . . . Drink the agua serenada before you go to sleep.” It was a procedure for winning the lottery. The week before, the finance minister had won the lottery, and used the money to buy a house in West Palm Beach. It seemed he expected to be relocating sometime soon.

This was Christmastime, and there were humans hanging in the trees beyond the security fence. She herself had a cheerful breadfruit sapling in the living room—the refrigerated shipment of Douglas fir had not been able to get through because the bandits had blocked the roads eastward. She hung the breadfruit tree with strings of tiny lights and hollow metallic balls, and sang Jungle Bells and other carols with the children.

Local fragrances, in addition to the flesh-pink shampoo fruit: the feminine traces that lingered in the powder room of the Pan-American club (Arpège, Fibah, and boredom), and the fetid jungle breath beyond the club’s meticulous gardens (rot, rot, and rot).

Like the bandits, the faith healer had to broadcast illegally. He had been condemned by the State, which accused him of feeding listeners fake hope. Passive hope, like baby food, like liquor, a set of baroque and empty promises. They didn’t realize he was working for them, in their favor. “All problems have a solution,” the faith healer said. “We all have a right to succeed in business, in study, in sports, in gambling, in love.” There were new laws. Palm readers, hypnotists and self-appointed gurus were all convicted. Also, vendors who sold magic powders, aphrodisiacs, and remedies by mail. The state banned broadcasts on divination and the interpretation of dreams, on anything that stimulated beliefs opposed to civilization, under a federal sub-clause called “crimes of passion.” Only the lottery numbers were okay.

The woman who dropped her drink had calmed down. She said to her husband in a defeated voice, “I wish everybody would just be quiet. It’s too much. All this talk of phosphorus and ammonia. I can’t keep it straight—what we have, what they have. I’m not a goddamned chemist.” Her husband was scooping up the remains of her drink, which was now just the base of a glass, surrounded by cheval-de-frise.

“Those who wrong me will meet grave misfortune,” the faith healer announced on his illegal broadcast.

They’ve got the phosphorus,” her husband said. “And we’ve got the ammonia.”

“But what the hell does it matter?” she asked.

“Because phosphorus is a weapon. They drop it from planes.” He set the remains of her broken glass on the bar, gesturing to the bartender to make her a new one. “And ammonia is a target. Those tanks next to the nickel factory across the channel—they’ll explode.”

“I know God’s deepest secrets,” the faith healer said. He was not a religious man.

The chandeliers swung, in the rooms where the ceilings hadn’t simply vaulted and then collapsed. There was a rip of pops from somewhere inside. Women who had been in the powder room when the explosion occurred reeled straight into the enormous mirrors that were mounted on the walls of the powder room lounge. In their disoriented panic, they mistook the silvered glass for open space. (Euclid still applied, if not to history, to at least the layout of the Pan-American club.) The mirrors crashed to the floor. The women wandered aimlessly, sliced up, blood batiking their faces. “It’s broken,” one of them said, holding her hands over her nose, which flumed garnet down to her chin. The first woman in this story was found wandering in the foyer, glass crunching under her heels. There was music in her head, jangly and instrumental, with a high-pitched and chimy after-trace. Music you’d pump out of a hand-crank organ, she thought to herself, but pictured no monkey. The monkeys here didn’t work—they hung from their cages, blinking at you with their moist, human eyes. The music was getting louder, more high-pitched around the edges. Blood flooded her vision. She said, “Can someone please turn that down?” She said it as loud as she could, but the music drowned her out.


Rachel Kushner is the author of the novels The Flamethrowers and Telex from Cuba. “Debouchment,” which originally appeared in the literary journal Soft Targets, will be included in Kushner’s forthcoming collection of short pieces, The Strange Case of Rachel K (New Directions, 2015). Copyright © 2015 by Rachel Kushner.


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