When the Devil Calls Him on Stage

A belated Christmas present from Ragpicker, a crónica from Héctor Torres. Read more from Torres and 29 other Venezuelan writers in Crude Words, available now.

When the Devil Calls Him on Stage

by Héctor Torres

Translated by Tim Girven


(For Gustavo, who presented me with this anecdote)

Tyrants have always been ambitious and narcissistic. Those of the past built huge workers’ housing complexes fifty-blocks strong, each with over a hundred apartments, just to cite one well-known case. During the first years, or so they say, the neighbours could go down to the Workers’ Bank office and request plumbing services, for instance, which were free.

Don’t believe that paternalism was invented by Acción Democrática¹.

Amelia not only came late to these stories, she has also seen them grow ever more distant with each day she has lived in Block 40 of the labyrinth known as the 23de Enero.  Having either seen them or heard them, everyone knows these tales by heart. She was there when they began to stop the lifts at 10pm as a measure against the wave of rapes unleashed upon the residents. She has witnessed the various wars waged for control of the block. She knows that this city of almost fifty tenements (not counting the small ones) and who-knows-how-many neighbourhoods is an independent republic into which the police don’t venture. She’s been woken in the small hours by the cries of big men sobbing and pleading for their lives. And she’s heard the detonations that made a mockery of these supplications. She’s seen how the different ‘collectives’ that support the government have become better armed, and she knows that the great final battle between them is already on the horizon.

She has seen the consequences of this bullet-ridden carnival. She has also seen a man called Alberto whistle his way into her life and then leave the same way some years later. They say he now lives with some other woman, nearby, and although she says it doesn’t bother her, when Albertico, who’s now twenty, walks down the corridor, whistling, she can’t help but feel herself tense up.

Amelia isn’t worried by the assailants of the block or by the spectre of Alberto; nor by the police. She couldn’t care less if the same old layabouts now call it a ‘socialist community’. Like thousands of her neighbours, she only knows that her day starts at five in the morning, that she earns her crust at a company on Boleíta, and that when the metro throws her out—literally—there in Agua Salud at six in the afternoon, she still needs to have the energy to take the bus that will bring her to the block. She knows too that Albertico is a calm youth, that he has a job and a girlfriend, and that with a tremendous effort she has moved things forward. ‘Where to?’ She doesn’t even ask she’s so damn tired when she puts her head on the pillow at night.

Bemba also grew up in the block. She knows him from when he was Joseíto, some ten years younger than her. She saw him attend school until somewhere around the end of primary and then she watched him throw it all away, step by step. He’d always been big for his age. And as tyrants are always ambitious and narcissistic, he’d carved out his legend at the cost of tens of bodies. It’s been said already: el 23 is an independent republic. And now it’s a socialist one. The police arrive (in the mornings, obviously) to pick up the bodies, ask questions so as to maintain appearances and then leave in a hurry—until the next corpse.

The devil, in all his wisdom, when he ushers men to the fortress of Power, always leaves the door that leads to their downfall open. It’s such a small building that it can only house one resident at a time. Accordingly, sooner or later, they all open the door, dead certain that what confronts them isn’t the abyss (if they could see the large queue of aspirants behind them they would be wise rather than powerful).

If unused, the survival instinct atrophies. But the powerful become so arrogant that they get to the outrageous point of disdaining it. And like all those who really wield power, Bemba had long put it to the back of his mind. He trusted blindly in his companions, Beretta and Luger. They never failed him.

The legend says that when he lit up those enormous roll-ups that he smoked, the precise composition of which remained forever unknown, no one should look him in the eye. Those who ignored this piece of advice paid for their insolence with a chalk outline of their body on the pavement. Which is to say, any prudent man who found himself accompanying Bemba’s rites, the pair of pistols in the waistband of his trousers, prudently turned off his testosterone.

It doesn’t cost much to lower one’s eyes a few metres in the presence of death.

The following morning, they would all console one another when they met at the bus stop. “‘Did you see it - that huge reefer?’ ‘The whites of his eyes were yellow’. “‘They say the dirty bastard gives it to his mother’.” “‘They’re two big pistols…’ ‘When the fuck is someone going to have the balls going to put a bullet right between the bastard’s eyes?’

And to this prayer his own mother added her voice, albeit in her own manner: ‘Lord, when are you going to take him from us?’ she prayed, piously.

Only the devil could be as perverse as to whisper in the ears of the powerful, repeating each time: ‘What good is power if you don’t exercise it?’ (Which is his way of saying: see that door? Open it.) Anyway, it wasn’t too long before the day came when ‘the girl’ walked past. She was a young thing of sixteen or so, and was as pretty, fresh and appetising as only a sixteen-year-old girl can be. As with all genuine matters of destiny, it couldn’t even be said that it was something personal. This graceful form in motion was the latch that Bemba opened up. Don’t worry; worse things happen every day in the alleyways and lifts of these blocks. He simply didn’t repress the impulse to fondle those delectable teenage buttocks.

The legend says that the girl arrived home crying, and that without adding or dropping so much as a comma, she told her boyfriend Albertico what had just happened. While a frozen current ran through his body, Albertico went home with a taciturn expression and meditated silently and at length before an imaginary fork in the road.

They say it was around twelve when they heard shots—one, two, three shots from a revolver, and then the broadside of an automatic weapon, accompanied by a shout so heart-rending that it frightened the neighbours more than the gunfire. The legend tells that Albertico walked calmly up to Bemba, ignoring his famously fierce look and took out a .38 that someone –upon hearing the nature of the enterprise he had taken on– had generously lent him. They say that only with the first shot, which entered through his shoulder, did Bemba realise what was happening, and that he died with a stupid look of perplexity, seeing the kid advancing towards him as he fired. That Albertico, still trembling, took the pair of pistols from him and felt something so portentous in his body that if he hadn’t shouted at the top of his lungs, expelling everything, he would have died of fear in that very moment.

The happiness of the block’s residents was short-lived. They say that the devil never rests. Now he whispers in the ear of El Albertico, who left that little girlfriend behind some time ago: ‘What good is power if you don’t exercise it?’

Some kid, one of those whose mother picks him up early, will in turn obediently take up his role when the devil calls him on stage.

¹Accíon Demócratica - Founded in 1941, 'AD' - also known as Partido Blanco or Partido del Pueblo - is broadly considered a social democratic party; between 1958 and 1998 it alternated in power with COPEI, the Social Christian party or Partido Verde.