Not a Woodpecker Anymore

We encouraged everyone to attend our reunions of embassy personnel once assigned to Bolivia. Nothing fancy. We gathered in homes around D.C., drank Bolivian beer and mate de coca, and ate salteñas and chuño. Quinoa had become fashionable, so we had that, too. Terry Larkin didn’t participate at first. He’d left State before retirement age, then he disappeared. When I ran into him working at Olsson’s bookstore in Georgetown, I invited him to join us. Once upon a time he was famous for having sprung an entire American family from a jail in the Beni. They’d had a run-in with the governor who wanted to overplant their farm with coca and marry their daughter. I thought he might tell that story, but over a span of years, he told another one.

He said he’d been freed from the visa line one day a week as a reward for extracting those Americans. On that day, he was to report on labor issues. Ina Garcìa y Yonathan was a natural early contact. Many of us knew her, the labor confederation’s publicist in the daytime and all sorts of things in the off-hours. She bar-hopped, she boogied, she had people over to her skinny four-story house fastened to the north wall of the canyon in which La Paz sits at 12,000 feet. It often seemed she spent time with us the better to criticize American foreign policy, but she wasn’t the love child of two infamous leftist politicians, as people sometimes said. Hadn’t therefore been adopted by her Israeli father, who left La Paz when the bank that financed his brewery was nationalized, and Bolivian mother, who now lived in Chicago. Wasn’t Jewish (she insisted), though out of commitment to Jews who really were Jews (her father was a Jew, of course), she kept track of the Nazis in Bolivia.

Larkin said one day Ina took him to see Klaus Barbie in the Café la Paz with its battered wainscoting and tall tarnished mirrors, Vienna in the Andes. They sat three tables over from him, a small, relaxed grandfatherly man who took great care in how much thick black coffee syrup he mixed with hot water as he was paid court by a succession of confidants.

“That’s the Butcher of Lyon,” she said.

Larkin thought she must be kidding. “He can’t be sitting there in plain view, can he?”

“He’s been sitting there for years.”

“Why doesn’t the Mossad come get him?”

“Why don’t you guys?”

Larkin said he wasn’t involved in that line of work.

“I know you’re not. I just wanted to see if you’d put me on.”

“Why would I want to put you on?”

“Men do sometimes.”

“What are you doing about Barbie?”

“I’m sitting here hating him.”

“You think he knows that?”

“Of course. He knows you hate him, too. You do, don’t you?”

Larkin said he was just getting over hating Northwestern, which had denied him tenure, and his ex-wife, who got tenure. He didn’t feel like hating anyone anymore. “What good does it do?”

“You think I should do more?”

“Like what?”

“Like this.” Ina walked over to Barbie, and asked, “Why don’t you go back to France and face justice?”

Barbie had been assailed before. He wasn’t fazed. “Because I prefer the air here.”

His friends rose to protest her discourtesy. The face-off lasted only a few seconds before Ina returned to sit with Larkin.

“You could get yourself killed doing things like that,” he said.

“I don’t care.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“Should we leave now?”

“No, we should finish our coffee, just like him.”

That was a good story, provoking others to tell stories about Nazis in South America, notably a good one about Mengele in Brazil, the real story, not the movie version.

The following year Larkin joined us again at a house in McLean, but he had to be coaxed into telling us more about Ina. No one knew what happened to her. His resistance wasn’t feigned, but it wasn’t that stiff. Something apparently had gone on between them, and he needed to talk about it even if he didn’t want to.

He said that one day she invited him to visit a tin mine near Oruro to check out the miners’ working conditions. On the drive there, they spent time getting to know one another beyond the professional. She said she spoke perfect English because she had been through elementary school in Oak Park, Illinois, where Hemingway was born. And she shared other bits of biographical detail with him. Her teenage move to Tel Aviv to live with her father. Her stint in the Israeli Defense Forces as a medic. Her return to Bolivia because that was where she felt needed and was born, her first language Aymara, learned from her nanny, her second Spanish, learned from her mother.

Larkin didn’t have anything equally colorful to tell her in reply. He’d said he’d grown up outside Philadelphia. Boring. He talked about his doctoral dissertation on myths and epics. Also boring. He said he hadn’t been sent to Bolivia for any particular reason, just because someone had to go. He said he wasn’t a Christian the way she wasn’t a Jew and yet Christianity was tattooed in him somewhere, maybe up and down his spine.

After they boarded the ore car at the mouth of the mine, the furry lights along the tracks blurred the darkness as much as illuminated it. For a few minutes, Larkin thought they were descending, which they were, but not really. The real descent, when it came, was so steep he jammed his boots under the plank on which Ina was sitting in front of him. She didn’t laugh, which he appreciated.

They reached a cavern from which numerous narrow tunnels spoked out. From there she led him on foot into a faintly glowing hole deeper in the mountain. Men carrying sacks of ore on their shoulders passed them on the way up, the lamps on their helmets resembling a procession of fireflies. Men down below, more fireflies, picked and hammered their way into a subset of tighter tunnels. Ina took Larkin’s hand and led him to a man filling his bag with the next load. She spoke to him in Aymara. The man grinned. Ina said something else. The man laughed.

“What did you say?” Larkin asked.

“I asked if he needed help.”

“How did he answer?”

“He said yes, from God. I said I didn’t know God was a tin miner. He said not yet, but sooner or later he’d visit hell, too.”

Hiking back up to the ore car, Larkin could only make it four or five feet before he had to stop. He was struggling to breathe. Had no strength. He said he thought that he’d finally found a metaphor for how he’d felt all his life, a person trapped in the tunnel of a tunnel. And then another tunnel and one after that. We found his candor disconcerting.

On the way back to La Paz, Ina could see he needed time to pull himself together, but eventually she began talking about the purpose of their visit. She was angling for U.S. money as she angled for money from other embassies and NGOs and foundations and stiftungs. The miners needed better healthcare, training and organizational support. So did the teachers, bricklayers and farmers, everyone except the generals and the rich owners of almost everything within Bolivia’s borders. The exploitation had to end, hopefully before Barbie and his friends in the military staged the next coup, which was coming soon, as coups tended to do in Bolivia.

Larkin heard her. No one could not hear her. This was the passion of her life. He couldn’t answer, though. Couldn’t find the words. Tried but couldn’t do it.

“Terry, are you all right?”

When he couldn’t even answer no, he wasn’t, she eased to the side of the road and put a blanket over him, telling him this was going to pass, he was going to be okay, just stay calm, which he was. He didn’t have the energy to be anything but calm. He thought he was dying.

She wet her hands with water and rubbed his face. She pressed his temples with her fingertips. She stroked his hair. She took off his boots and socks. She chafed his feet with her palms. He began breathing more steadily and felt a kind of ecstasy building within him, religious and more than religious—cosmic. Now he didn’t even want to want to be able to speak because nothing needed to be said. He looked over her shoulders at the sun descending beyond the crest of the cordillera and then at the shadowy ragged waste between those mountains and where they sat in their Jeep, and saw how beautiful it all was, a rolling, surging splendor that was lifting him up, bringing him back. Not having died was wonderful. The whole world was all right. He was all right. No tunnels anymore. Just space, freedom and space.

She took him to her house and settled him in a guest room and told him he had had a transitory ischemic attack, a TIA, which happened at these altitudes sometimes, and might happen again, which it did, later that night, not as severe or ultimately wonderful when it passed, a sensation of indifference to the darkness from which she rescued him, putting her hands behind his head and pressing his face to her breast and telling him again that he’d be okay.

When Larkin made it back to the embassy the next day, Fred O’Connor, the consul general, asked him what he’d done on his so-called Labor Day.

“I visited a tin mine in Oruro with Ina Garcìa y Yonathan and ended up having some kind of transitory mini-stroke.”

“Who diagnosed it?”

“Ina.”

“What does she know about strokes?”

“She was a medic in Israel, the IDF.”

“Go see the nurse downstairs and get a real medical assessment.”

“Yes, sir.”

He didn’t go see the nurse. That night he went looking for Ina instead and kept seeing her over the next few weeks, during which she talked politics relentlessly, obsessing that the military was poised to overthrow the labor-friendly government. This could happen any time…tonight…tomorrow…any time.

“What are you guys going to do about it?”

“I’m a third secretary. I’m not going to do anything about it.”

“Did you know Klaus Barbie is advising them?”

“I’m sure someone does.”

“He is.”

“I’ll pass it along”

“Will you?”

“Yes”

“Promise?”

“Yes.”

He admitted he didn’t pass it along because he worried that he might be told to begin milking her for more information. In an embassy, that was a mistake. Milking her was exactly what he was supposed to do. But then Larkin confessed what we had suspected. He’d fallen for her. He suggested she go with him when he left Bolivia and get away from all this endless, pointless turmoil.

“Go where?” she asked him.

“Wherever they send me.”

“Don’t you have any say in the matter?”

“Not really.
“That’s stupid.”

“Those are the terms.”

“They’re ridiculous terms.”

“Not knowing could be an adventure.”

“I have enough adventures in La Paz.”

“I’m not talking about marriage.”

“What are you talking about, then? Why would I give up La Paz if you wouldn’t marry me?”

“Would you marry me?”

“Of course not. This is my home. It’s all I’ve got.”

“I’m telling you you’ve got me.”

“No, my dear, the United States government has you.”

All of us knew what Ina meant and most of us took it to be true, except Larkin. He stopped talking at this point, apparently deciding that we had taken Ina’s side against him.

The next year, after several of us had recounted where we’d been and what we’d done on the day of the Garcìa Meza golpe, the Spanish word for coup, Larkin took us into a restaurant located in an old stable where we’d all eaten many times.

Nothing strange was happening on the street when he descended the cobbled passageway to the tables arrayed in the saddling paddock. He ordered a beer and filet mignon with a fried egg on top and sat there noticing this and that, the paper napkins leveling the tables on the rutted dirt, the urine-yellow of the beer being served and how softly people were murmuring to one another. He liked to practice his Spanish listening in on nearby conversations, but he couldn’t make out what anyone was saying.

Suddenly he began noticing people putting down their utensils, dispensing with their napkins, and heading for the tall doors at the head of the cobbled passageway. They moved the way a herd of antelope moves, sensing a nearby lion. Waiters scurried after them to collect payment but abandoned pursuit if a customer made it out onto the street. Larkin left what he owed on the table and took off, too.

Outside, some people stepped off the sidewalk to make better time in the gutter and yammering—not murmuring anymore—at one another, so he now clearly heard the word he suspected he’d hear, golpe. One government gone, another taking its place. Over the noise of cars and taxis making their getaway through the scrambling pedestrians, he also heard a woodpeckery sound—pok-pok-pok—coming from the labor confederation across the Prado, where Ina worked. Then the pok-pok-pok accelerated. Not a woodpecker anymore.

He ran across the Prado and up the steps to the confederation’s front doors and pushed back the soldier inside who was leaning against them to keep them shut. The sight of him in his blue pin-striped suit apparently startled three other soldiers who had just killed several confederation employees, now sprawled across the lobby floor. They took him for some kind of higher authority. What else would he be doing there? In fact, he was paralyzed by the sight of so many corpses, looking for Ina among them. Their blood, he said, had a blackish quality, and it was everywhere, in pools and streams and spatters. But none of the dead were Ina.

Here Larkin broke off. He said he felt it would be a disservice to these people if he brushed by them to subsequent events that involved Ina.

“There’s more, but I’ll tell you next year.”

People said, “Oh, please.”

Larkin resisted again, apparently typical of him, a stubborn but somewhat fearful, or wounded, kind of man. This was awkward for us. We were caught up in him. We all had the sense that everything the rest of us had lived through in Bolivia was being concentrated into his story, and we wanted to hear it, even though a junior officer wasn’t supposed to be able to turn his “what happened” into general truth. Anyway, we forced his hand and he said that he and the soldiers were distracted by a sound at the head of the stairs to the second floor. Ina was up there taking pictures.

One soldier yelled, “Stop!” Another fired a burst her way with one of the grease guns we gave Bolivia after WWII. Ina held up her hand in self-defense. A bullet hit her in the palm hard enough to knock her out of sight behind the balustrade.

Larkin yelled, “Basta!”

The soldiers pondered what to do about him, but he wasn’t on their hit list, and they had other people to kill elsewhere. They left the confederation by the back door.

Larkin helped Ina onto the Prado, still flushing people from the center of the city. When they turned up the hill past the moneychangers’ spot, she focused on the fact that he was taking her to the embassy.

“I can’t go in there.”

“We have to take care of your hand.”

She wrenched free. “Just take the film out of the camera and show the world what happened.”

He grabbed her by her good arm and yanked her toward the embassy entrance.

“No, dammit, let me go!”

He refused. Half-dragged her through the security door the marine pushed open for them. Got her into the elevator and took her up to the infirmary. No nurse on duty, almost no one in the embassy, they’d all been sent home, so Larkin asked Ina what he should do. Ina again said he should let her go. Larkin said no. He had to take care of her hand. She was the nurse—tell him what to do.

Ina said what she needed first was pain killer. Larkin found Darvon in the pharmacy cabinet.

“Now roll some gauze up like a pencil and soak it in peroxide and work it through. Do it twice.”

Larkin made her lie down on a bed before he drew the wet gauze through her right hand once, then twice. That was hard on her. Next Ina told him to smear another roll of gauze with antibiotic and do the same thing twice again.

“Now bandage me and get me out of here.”

“I can’t do that. It’s not safe.”

“You think this is safe?”

“For now it is.”

“Then give me another Darvon and leave me alone.”

“What about the photographs?”

Ina said to throw the film away. Then she said develop it and give it to the newspapers. Then she said she didn’t know, she had told him what was going to happen, what had the United States done to stop it?

Larkin gave her another Darvon and sat with her until the marine gunny stuck his head in and told him Scotty Winkler wanted to see him. Larkin went up to Scotty’s office, and Scotty told him that the ambassador was being recalled in protest and that he, Larkin, should head out with him the next morning on the air attaché’s C-12.

“These guys know what you saw. Let’s deny them the satisfaction of throwing you out.”

“I’ve got a roll of film with pictures Ina took of the people they killed. Here’s the camera.”

Winkler was the ironic kind of deputy chief of mission, not the bad cop kind. “Wonderful. Do you know how to develop pictures?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Then go up the street to USIS and use their darkroom.”

“What about Ina?”

“How is she doing?”

“The Darvon I gave her knocked her out.”

“Develop the pictures. We’ll talk about her later.”

Larkin climbed the hill to the USIS building. The USIS admin officer was just leaving with a zippered bag of petty cash, not stealing it, protecting it. He pointed the way to the dark room.

Larkin had been a photographer in high school. He developed the film and made the prints the same way he would develop and print photos of a drama club production, but that was where his familiarity with what he was doing broke down. The photos were worse than the images in his mind because he could stand there in the red light staring at them. He took them to Scotty.

“You ran in to stop this?” Scotty asked.

“Not to stop it. I was looking for Ina.”

“What do we do with them?”

“She said give them to the papers.”

“Which papers?”

“Progresso? Ultima Hora?”

“If they ran them, that would get their editors killed, too.”

“What about the AP guy? Let him get them out.”

“Or what about the Reuters guy, Parsons? I saw him here from B.A. yesterday. We could get the Brits into this with us.”

“He’s here because he knew the golpe was coming?”

“Who didn’t? Maybe Ina called and told him.”

Larkin had something else on his mind. “Do you think Ina could go with me on the plane tomorrow?”

“If we got her out, she’d never be able to come back.”

“Why would she want to come back?”

“Larkin, do you appreciate how complicated this is?”

“I think I do.”

“Okay, I’ll ask the ambassador, but he decides.”

“Who is getting out of here himself, right?”

“Right, but so are you, my friend.”

The stringer at the local Reuters’ office said Parsons was staying in the Hotel Presidente where Larkin headed next. On the way out, he stopped in the infirmary to see Ina but was careful not to wake her. He just stood there a moment looking at utterly still face and bloody blouse. He thought she would be out for hours and he had time to do what he was going to do and come back and persuade Scotty that she had to be on the C-12 in the morning.

As he walked down a long corridor toward Parsons’ room on the third floor of the Presidente, it occurred to Larkin that this would be an ideal place to crack him over the head and take the photos. He laughed at himself as told us this. For the first time in his life, he said, he enjoyed the sheer suspense of being alive, but of course, no one attacked him in that hallway. That’s why he laughed, apparently not realizing that most us laugh at ourselves after escaping one of diplomacy’s many disasters en route to another.

It turned out that Mercier, the AFP guy, had flown in from Rio and was bunking with Parsons. They’d been out reporting and now were typing up their notes on portable Olivetti’s and working the phones. The room stank of cigarettes and whiskey. Room-service trays were stacked by the door. Stuff Larkin said he noticed the way he’d been noticing everything since he’d sat down for lunch.

“Which one of you do I talk to about some photographs?”

“Show us what you’ve got,” Parsons said.

Larkin spread the photographs on one of the beds. Parsons and Mercier looked at them as though the bodies might be a pile of leaves.

“Who took these photos?” Mercier asked.

He couldn’t say Ina, so he said himself. “I was having lunch across the Prado and had my camera with me. I always carry it around.” In fact, he still had Ina’s Pentax with him. “I ran over and took the pictures.”

Mercier asked, “Where were you standing?”

“Inside the front door.”

Parsons said, “These pictures were taken from overhead…from stairs or a landing.”

“So how did you get them?” Mercier asked.

“What difference does it make? We’re going through a golpe, here are the dead, don’t you want them?”

Parsons said, “We’re not filing CIA photographs.”

“They’re not CIA.”

“Then who do we attribute them to?” Mercier asked. “Give us a name. Let us talk to the photographer. That’s the story. Who saw this happen? Why was he there? How did he get away?”

“I can’t tell you. It wouldn’t be safe.”

“Sorry, if we can’t use the photos until it’s safe, we can’t use them at all,” Parsons said.

Larkin didn’t bother telling us how he felt hearing that, but he didn’t have to, we all knew the feeling, like a failure. He jumped back to talking about Ina. She was gone when he got back to the embassy. The gunny said she had left a half hour earlier.

“Walked out the door and headed down the street. Scotty wants to see you. Said as soon as you got back.”

Scotty knew, as he seemed to know everything, that Ina was gone, and he was all right with that. “She’s not a person who would benefit from our help.”

“What if I persuaded her otherwise?”

“Don’t do that.”

“But if I did.”

“I’m telling you to let it go. We’ll have security take you home to pack your bag—all you get is one. Tomorrow morning they’ll pick you up early. Good luck, Larkin. You’ve left your mark here.”

Larkin said it was clear to him he hadn’t made any mark in Bolivia, but he kept telling his story. The one person who clearly didn’t want him to was the ambassador, an old man by then, almost ninety; he obviously didn’t like the fact that his own final moments in Bolivia were being overshadowed by a first-tour officer who ended up behind a cash register in a bookstore.

Larkin said he was living in a 50s-style rancher surrounded by a high wall in Calacoto, a thousand feet below the center of La Paz. He jettisoned a pile of clothes and books to make room for coca pouches and mantas and spoons and pins in his suit bag. That done, the only important thing left was Ina’s Pentax, which he’d automatically reloaded with film in the dark room because that was his drill. Never be caught with a camera and no film. He decided to use returning it as an excuse for pressing her to come with him. Given where she lived, that was a questionable decision. There was a golpe between him and her. A toque de queda—curfew—too.

The Avenida Ballivian running past his house was untrafficked, most of La Paz in hiding from itself, but soon enough a taxi appeared out of nowhere, exactly what you would expect in Bolivia, all exceptions, no rules. Along the way up through the blackened colonial core of the city, Larkin saw no one except clusters of soldiers carrying grease guns. Fortunately, all the taxista had to do was blink his headlights to pass by unchallenged. That was the password: Don’t shoot. I’m out here trying to make a living, same as you.

They climbed into the warren of unpaved streets where Ina lived, streets so steep that the taxista stopped at the border, as it were, valuing his shock absorbers and axles more than the extra Bolivianos Larkin would have paid him to drive farther.

“Le espero?” he asked.

Larkin imagined Ina too doped-up with Darvon to take him seriously. He also imagined her furious with him. But he’d start with the camera, say he’d just come to return it, and from there, he’d make headway, make her see he was right, take her to Calacoto with him, and get her on the C-12 or else refuse to get on board himself. That was his plan, or what he told himself was his plan, not a plan, really, more a fantasy.

He told the taxista yes, please wait for him, and began hiking toward Ina’s place. This time the danger he’d put himself in didn’t excite him. The shadows had shadows up there, blacker than the blood on the floor at the confederation and the black of the tin mine in Oruro and the black of Barbie’s coffee syrup at the Café La Paz. He knew what he was doing was stupid. He didn’t think Ina loved him, and he didn’t know to what extent he loved her. This was just something that he felt he had to do. At least force her to consider it. At least hear her say no.

Then he heard that woodpecker again and stopped exactly the way a birdwatcher would stop. Where was it? In what tree, in what bush? Then he heard it again right around the corner. He inched ahead and saw some soldiers leaving Ina’s house, getting into a jeep and driving away. When their taillights disappeared, he scrambled across the road fronting her house. The door had been left open, so he didn’t need his key. He didn’t need lights on, either, because there were lights on in her bedroom on the third floor. He grabbed the railing and tugged himself up to the first landing, the second, the third. Then he stopped. Then he stumbled through the doorway to her bedroom and saw bullet wounds blossomed across her shoulders and breast and stomach and groin. Her bandaged hand, which she apparently had raised to defend herself again, hung over the side of her bed. Her eyes were open. She’d seen what the soldiers intended to do when they tore off her blankets and shot her.

Larkin shocked us. He said he raised the Pentax and took her picture. Then he found his way back out to the waiting taxi and rode down to Calacoto on Avenida Ballivian, the taxista blinking his lights at soldiers who smoked cigarettes or stood around a fire they’d built in the gutter or, in one case, taking advantage of a streetlight, stood in a circle on the sidewalk kicking a soccer ball back and forth.

At six in the morning, the security team arrived in an armored Suburban to collect him and proceeded from there to the ambassador’s residence. The ambassador came out wearing a bulletproof vest under his topcoat and a helmet on his head. He walked past his Cadillac and got into the Suburban with Larkin in the back seat and said good morning and asked if Larkin had gotten any rest. Larkin said no. The ambassador said he hadn’t, either. Larkin asked why the ambassador was in the Suburban, not the Cadillac. The ambassador said the security team didn’t think it was safe. His detail was in the Cadillac, acting as a decoy.

The drive up to the El Alto airport offers panoramic views of La Paz, whose canyon is many miles long and thousands of feet deep and opens up wider and wider until it cascades into the reddish blue distance. Sitting behind the driver, Larkin had a better view than the ambassador, who only had the spiraling canyon wall to look at as the Suburban climbed toward the cresting sun.

Having finally made it into Larkin’s story, the ambassador assumed it was his turn to talk. He wanted to describe what had happened to him from the moment the golpe unfolded to being ordered to leave to what he did to organize resistance to the golpe when he got back to Washington.

Someone should have said something to acknowledge the old ambassador’s rambling, but we were thinking about whether Larkin ever had developed that photo of Ina and whether that image was worse than the one he carried around in his mind.

 

 

About Robert Earle

With more than 100 stories in U.S., Canadian, U.K., and Australian literary journals, Robert Earle is one of the more widely published contemporary writers of short fiction. Vine Leaves Press published his story collection, She Receives the Night, in 20

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