El Gringo Rojo

by Kyle Giller

 
      Trujillo isn’t really known for Trujillo. All anybody knows is the neighboring beach town, Huanchaco, it’s supposed to be one of the great surfing spots of the world or something like that. Big deal. All it looks like to me is a bunch of lanky blond-haired blue-eyed “dudes” who are forever running towards that point where the ocean meets the sand, carrying their newly-waxed board under one ropy forearm while half-glancing backward at you, wagging the pinky and thumb of the other hand in that universal gesture indicating that “surf’s up.” Maybe the sun will be setting, igniting the sky in a fiery display of orange and red that outlines their pale-pink bodies, giving them an almost god-like quality. I don’t buy it. I’ll tell them what’s “up.” Next time I see one of them do that I’m going to stick that surfboard so far up their asses they scream out for their pinche mothers, that’s what’s up.

      We still hang out on the beach, though. Where else are we going to go? In the summer Trujillo is just full of old ladies hobbling the streets, huge gold crosses swinging from their necks, glaring at you for the sin of being young and able. I don’t need that, man. Sometimes I think I go to Huanchaco just so I don’t feel trapped by those goddamn old ladies. They’ll pull you by the elbow and whisper about the badly behaved nephew they had who got dragged into an unmarked van and taken out to the desert and beaten to such a pulp the vultures didn’t have much left to pick at, or their fat daughter who desperately needs to get married while she’s young enough to push out about ten or twenty kids. That’s just what this world needs. Ten more fat-ass Peruvians who play football six hours a day and never learn the world extends beyond the Pan-American highway. They’ll mutter about how corrupt the government is and fawn over Tom Cruise but they’ll never, not once, lift a goddamn finger and actually do something. Hypocrites.

      Huanchaco is definitely the spot to hang out, but man does it get crowded with the tourists and cerveza vendors and old ladies selling papa rellenas. It gets so you can hardly find a spot on the beach to meet up with the crew and scope out the mujeres that ritually plant themselves on the sand and wait for the sun to fry their skin. Some of them come with the surfer dudes but some of them sit alone and leave alone. Some of them even wear thongs. I heard that in Europe the women go to the beach without clothes, just waiting for guys to come and fuck them. It’s just what I heard, though, I don’t know. We talk about it a lot, but we don’t know. We can’t even approach them, really: mostly they don’t speak Spanish, and the ones who do have such awful accents that it hurts my ears to even be near it. One time Miguel worked up the courage to go up to this girl. “Hey baby,” he said, possessing none of the suave-ness necessary to pull off a line like that. “You from France?” The women glanced up for a second, her dark Ray Bans glittering against the radiant sun, one side of her mouth tilted slightly upwards in a bemused smile. Her sparkling blonde hair swayed to and fro from the gentle breeze playing across her face. I bet she had blue eyes but I couldn’t tell. “No hablo,” she responded, and went back to her book, I think it was Love in the Time of Cholera or some super corny bullshit like that. She said “hablo” like a gringa would, pronouncing the “h” loud and clear. Miguel stumbled back over to the crew, mortally wounded. We never had a chance, man. Pinche English! If only those girls spoke Spanish, or…well, I’m not sure.

      Anyway, if you haven’t figured it out, I’m from Trujillo. I grew up in a little two-story shack off America Norte with my mom and dad and five little brothers and sisters. My parents don’t want me going off to Huanchaco every day, they say there are drug dealers and they don’t want us mixing with the tourists, but I go anyway. Big deal. What else am I going to do with the crew for the summer? Where else can we scope out the mujeres while getting blasted on cheap weed and beer? It’s our world, and we own it. Mom doesn’t get it, though. She has this crazy idea I’ll actually spend my summer vacation studying, or enrolled in some bullshit football club where they blow whistles and make you run around cones all day. Please. I get out of that house every day as quick as I can. I got more important things to do than wait around for my dad to tell me my life is going nowhere, or have to change my little brother’s diaper every two hours, or feel guilty for skipping out on Church every Sunday or masturbating every night. That shit gets annoying real fast, and I won’t stand for it.

      The bus ride from Trujillo to Huanchaco every day is quite an experience itself. To get from the city to the beach you have to ride through the badlands of Chan Chan. It used to be this giant ancient city, thousands or millions of years ago or something, but now it’s just a couple blocks of sand in the middle of the searing desert. I usually don’t pay attention in school but one day the teacher showed us this video, it was a recreation of ancient history I guess, showing the old Peruvian tribes building Chan Chan all those years ago. Man, what a lot of work! I get tired just playing first half as sweeper. These dudes built up these huge cities with their bare hands, no machines or nothing. In the video they were sweating and moaning as they struggled to put those sand blocks up, one on top of the other, their ancient, dark faces straining with the effort. And they were so dark, man! I remember one kid asked if they were from Africa or some shit and we all laughed. The teacher was mad but we just couldn’t stop cracking up. I mean, those guys in the video didn’t look like us. These are Peruvians? I guess we’ve got Spanish blood or something because we’re all brown, I mean, these guys really looked black. I was supposed to ask my Dad about it for some assignment on the history of the Peruvian race but I forgot.

      The story of Chan Chan always reminds me of that story in the Bible, where the Jews are in Egypt and they’re slaves so they build the pyramids, and then God is talking to one Jew and he says to the Egyptian Presidente, “let my people go!” I always remember that line because I want to say it to my parents when they won’t let me go to Huanchaco. I learned that shit in Sunday School. Usually I don’t pay attention in school but I remember that story. It seemed kind of weird, though. Why doesn’t the Bible talk about the Peruvians building Chan Chan? Why didn’t they ever say, “let my people go?” Probably because they were enslaved by other Peruvians, not some pinche Egyptians looking for cheap labor. I guess it’s different when your own people are enslaving you. You can’t very well say “my” people when we’re all the same mestizo brown crap. The Spanish must have really liked Chan Chan when they first got here, though. They put a big church right smack in the middle of all those stones, ancient crumbling blocks of sand surrounding a brand spanking new wooden church. It must have really thrown those old darkies for a loop, seeing that glistening white church in the middle of all their decaying stones. It’s all ruins now, though. Just a road passing from Trujillo to Huanchaco. People write all sorts of corny shit on the stones now, like, “Te amo, gordita,” or “God is love.” I don’t know why they bother.

      Anyway, I’m probably boring you, so I’d better get on with my story. One day this gringo kid shows up on the beach while I’m chilling with the crew, scoping out the honeys frying on the sand. He sort of saunters over, not really cocky but not really bashful, and sits down near us. We don’t really pay much attention, there’s a blond-haired girl lying on her stomach that really has our focus, but he keeps sitting there, super quiet, not doing much but somehow distracting us from the chick. Soon we’re all giving him sidelong glances. He’s kind of an awkward kid, looks like he’s used to getting picked on. I think Miguel starts in on him first.

      “What’s up, man?”

      “You ever been in the sun before?”

      “You put on a coat of primer and forget to paint the rest?”

      The gringo just sits there, half-smiling, not seeming to really comprehend, but he doesn’t look too worried either. Miguel, who’s used to getting an immediate response from people, starts to get a little agitated.

      “You don’t speak Spanish, man?” Miguel musters up all his strength and does his best English. “Wharr yoo frahm, doode?” I shudder at the words. Pinche English.

      The kid still doesn’t say anything, and eventually we turn back to the blonde, but she’s already left. Miguel gets up with great bravado. “Come on, let’s go,” he sneers. “We got better things to do.”

      We don’t do much, though: maybe wander a couple more blocks and then hop on the bus back to Trujillo, through the flat yellow stones of Chan Chan, grimly staring back at us in the fading twilight. I look at the stones and see the ancient dark faces of my ancestors, sweating with the strain, silent and solemn in their epic task. “That fucking white boy,” mutters Miguel. “What was he doing in our spot?” The stones finally give way to the dusty, dirty streets of Trujillo. We each get off at our respective houses, barely stopping to say good-bye, knowing we’ll be doing virtually the same thing the next day. That night I jack off under the sheets to the blond woman from the beach.

      The next day we’re back at Huanchaco and the pinche gringo shows up again, that same awkward gait, but still totally calm, in control. It’s weird, man. We don’t know what to make of it. Instead of getting mad, though, this time we all almost bust a gut laughing when he walks up. The gringo is totally burned! He must have been out in the sun all day with no lotion or nothing, because he was cooked better than the trucha I had for dinner.

      “What happened, gringo?”

      “Yeah, yesterday you were white as an angel!”

      “I didn’t know Jesus ordered lobster with his angels!”

      We cracked up for a while, and the weird thing is the gringo started laughing too, as though he got the joke. I don’t know if he understood but he made it look like he did. After that we let him sit with us. We even asked him questions about his life and stuff.

      “What are you doing here, man?”

      “You got a blond novia, gringo?”

      “Yeah, she got tits like Pamela Anderson?”

      The gringo just smiled, blank, so Antonio got up to show what he meant, first making the shape of balloons over his chest, then shaking rhythmically up and down, screaming in this high pitched voice, “Ah! Ah! Sígame papí!” For a terrible instant my vision clouded and I had a flash of Antonio dressed like those Peruvians in the old videos, dancing and moaning, with the great stones of Chan Chan rumbling and rising behind him as the ocean rolled and the sky cracked open. As soon as I blinked the vision was gone. The gringo just laughed and sat there, as usual. We didn’t get him to say anything but nobody cared if he just sat with us all day, as we talked about girls and the shitty weed we kept buying. At one point Miguel went behind the gringo, grinning, made some thrusting motions, and then pretended to slap him right on the back of the neck, right where he was the reddest. He didn’t do it, though.

      That night going back to Trujillo on the bus, we couldn’t talk about anything else. Who was this gringo? Why wouldn’t he talk?

      “Why’s his skin so red?” Wondered Juan. “Is he sick or something?”

      “Maybe he’s an Indian,” reasoned Miguel. “Isn’t that what they call the indios in America? Redskins?”

      I was hardly paying attention. I couldn’t stop looking at the yellow stones of Chan Chan as we rode through the flat desert, stretching out into the beyond. The harder I stared at the stones the more it looked like they were rumbling, murmuring indistinctly.

      “That’s what we should call him!” Miguel exclaimed with a flash of inspiration. “El gringo indio!”
      “El grindio!” Juan was laughing so hard he almost fell onto a stern looking woman with a large cross around her neck.

      That night I fell asleep before I could jack off and dreamed of the blond woman on the beach, but this time she stood high upon the glory of Chan Chan, like it must have been in the old days, and there I was standing at the bottom of this temple, as the waves rose higher and the sky clouded over. I raced up the steps, my arms outstretched to grab her long blond hair and I don’t know, fuck her I guess, when all of a sudden the stones starting murmuring and crumbling and I was thrown from the steps, and just before I crash-landed in the Pacific Ocean I woke up.

      You’ll never believe it, but the next day the gringo came back with a girl! She must have been from the Amazon or something, one of those little tribes that sees an airplane once every ten years and still think it’s a sign from the God of corn or some idiocy, because she was as dark as any Peruvian I’d ever seen, as dark as the ancients in the video. We were all psyched to lay into him with that “grindio” bit Miguel had made up, but we ended up staring open-mouthed at his usual weird saunter, the half-smile still there, not saying a word. The girl, right beside him, looked around a bit nervously, but took a seat next to us all the same.

      “You gonna introduce us, man?” said Miguel, voice struggling to rise above a hoarse whisper. “Who’s the girl?”

      The gringo stayed silent, not seeming to worry much about our confusion. Eventually Miguel got up and went over to the girl and started talking to her. She didn’t resist. They talked about the beach, the best bars on the boardwalk, what ice cream spots she liked to go to in Trujillo. She was polite but she didn’t say much more than our silent gringo. He was redder than ever that day, but he didn’t seem to be in pain from any of the burns. Pretty soon Miguel got up.

      “Nice girl, gringo,” he said vaguely. “A little dark for my taste!” He let out a strange bark that I guess was supposed to be a laugh but got caught up in his throat, coming out as a harsh cry that echoed off the sand and lingered in the insufferable afternoon heat. We were mostly quiet for the rest of the day, watching the tourists and the vendors mingle and blur along the beach. I went home early so I could watch the stones during the sunset. As the rays dipped down below the Pacific, the sky was reignited with the fiery reds and oranges that make my breath catch and my eyes water. I’m a little sensitive, okay? But I was watching the stones, mostly. As the sky dipped down into a deep orange, the yellow stones started to glitter and soften. They looked like gold! Like some long-forgotten treasure hidden right under everyone’s noses. I was going to ask my Dad if he knew anything about Chan Chan, like the secret of some treasure the Spanish buried or something, but I forgot.

      The next day the gringo didn’t show up. We didn’t say anything, but we were surprised. Was he off with that dark Peruvian girl? Did he take her back to America or something? What the hell is he doing pulling a girl, anyway? Why aren’t we doing that? What’s he got that we don’t, huh? A fucking sunburn? I haven’t even heard him speak that pinche English the Americans are so famous for. Peruvian girls go wild when they do for some weird reason. I can’t stand the sound of it.

      Miguel tried to deal with the issue philosophically. “Maybe if the gringo can get with the darkies…” he began. “It’s like an opposites thing, you know? Maybe this means we can finally get with the white girls!”

      “Bullshit, man,” said Antonio. “We’ve been here all summer, and they don’t even look at us. We’re invisible to them. They probably take one look and assume we’re part of the staff,” he starting laughing at this. “Remember when that one girl asked me to bring her a beer? I thought she was hitting on me, but then she gave me a fifty peseta tip and walked away, like I was nothing. I still got a nice view, though, she was walking slow, so I could see her ass cheeks bouncing…”

      The crew kept talking about asses, but I got up and started walking all the way home, so I would have some time to check out the stones at Chan Chan while it was still light. There wasn’t much, though: the stones looked empty, hollow, and they had ceased their rumbling. I went up to a sign that just said, “The Ruins of Chan Chan,” and didn’t have any information or nothing. There wasn’t even a museum, just that stupid rotting old wooden church still standing in the middle of all those crumbling rocks. At least the Bible gave some sort of explanation for why the Jews had to build those stupid Egyptian pyramids, but I have no idea why those Peruvians had to suffer so much to build these goddamn blocks of sand. I took the next bus home.

      The pinche gringo didn’t show up the next day, either. We were starting to get worried, although you couldn’t act too concerned in front of the crew. Whatever it was, we couldn’t talk about anything else. I wasn’t even as focused on looking at girls as I usually am. The gringo was turning into a giant in our minds, his shadow looming behind every corning, shuddering with every step of his perilous journey, making night hideous with strangled, distant cries.

      “What’s with these white boys, anyway?” Juan eventually burst out. “They come here, take our women, act like they run the place…”

      “They’re just tourists, man,” threw out Antonio. “My dad says they keep our city working, or some bullshit like that.”

      “This stupid beach town and these stupid tourists keep Trujillo working? No way. No white boys are going to run my city.”

      “I’m not saying they run the city. They just put a lot of money into it, you know?”

      “No,” Juan was starting to twitch like he was angry, like there might be some truth there he wanted to avoid. “I don’t. I don’t see why we gotta encourage those kind of people to come here. We’re Peruvians. We built this fucking place and we can take care of it ourselves.”

      I could hardly pay attention. I was still reeling from the crazy dreams I’d been having. Practically every time I closed my eyes, I would see the ancient faces, sweating and groaning under the weight of Chan Chan and the yoke of their fellow Peruvian masters. I could hear their shrieks of agony pressed against my ear. I could feel their sorrow in my veins. Could they have been happy? Could I be happy?

      “Juan, quit acting like you don’t dig seeing white people here,” Miguel, the arbitrator, finally stepped in. “If white boys didn’t come, who would bring the white girls for us to look at?”

      This brought a whoop of laughter, followed by a nervous shock of sexual energy that ran through the crew as we all dwelled on the women we stare at, their exotic blonde hair and their long white legs.
“White boys aren’t all bad,” reasoned Miguel. “Think about some of the best football players! Zidane! Messi! I mean, some of those white boys can really play.” Miguel pondered for a moment, trying to bring his thoughts together in a powerful epiphany. “I mean, like, there’s white boys, like the gringo, and there’s great footballers who just happen to be white. You see? I mean, the gringo, he’s just white, that’s like his defining characteristic, but the footballers…”

      “Miguel, what the fuck are you talking about?” broke in Antonio. “Sounds like a lot of bullshit.”

      “Can you just roll another spliff, dude?” Spat back Miguel. “When you ask stupid questions you get stupid answers.”

      In a couple of minutes we had wandered over to our usual spliff-smoking spot, beneath the pier, secluded enough so that nobody could see us but open so we could see anyone who might be coming. Which is why it took us by surprise when the Peruvian girl who was with the gringo appeared all of a sudden, like she had just risen from the Pacific, and took a seat in our smoking circle. We were already a little high and completely taken aback. There was a stillness and a deep, empty silence that settled on the air, broken only by the crack of a wave or the light breeze shifting through the wooden boards of the pier. We couldn’t even hear the cries of the vendors or the jeers of the surfers. It was as if a great stillness had fallen over the world, over all humanity, and only the waters of the ocean kept up any movement while the rest of us languished in frozen silence.

      Trembling, Miguel passed her the spliff, unsure of what would happen but unable to think of what else to do. She obviously knew what she was doing. She held it in. She blew it out through her nose. We all sat watching, unable to utter a sound. When she was done she flicked the burning roach away where it settled in the sand, soon to be extinguished by the wind and water. Then the craziest thing happened. You’re not going to believe it, man! The girl gets up in the middle of the circle and starts taking her clothes off. She does it real slow, real serious, with her eyes closed. We were all riveted, staring at her. As she’s stripping she starts up this kind of dance, not like the sexy dancing I saw on that American show one time, but a weird, animal-like series of erratic gestures without much rhythm. She would make a movement, then freeze for a split second, then make another movement completely unrelated, and continue the process of undressing. There was no reason to it but it was totally mesmerizing. It looked like a broken robot imitating a dying bear.

      Eventually she was naked. I swear her skin was like five shades darker by the time she was done. That heavy stillness was still over us like a blanket, and all we could do was gaze in wonder at this form before us, still making those erratic movements. Soon she began humming a horrible tune that was more like whimpering than music. For a few minutes I couldn’t hear anything else, not the roar of the waves or the cry of the birds, just the atonal notes pounding in my ears, sounding terrible and familiar all at once. The sounds burrowed their way into my chest and filled my vision until tears sprang to my eyes. I managed to get a glimpse of the crew, and I saw they were all crying, too. But here’s the crazy thing: it wasn’t the kids I had come to the beach with at all! Their faces had been replaced by the ancient, worn countenances of the builders of Chan Chan, faces lined with suffering and age, mixing the clouded vision of my dreams with the stark world of the beach. We all gazed up at the girl, who continued the sounds and movements. Tears streamed down our faces, yet we remained impassive, like the stones themselves, stoic and forlorn.

      The crying and the moaning and the singing and the dancing grew stronger and louder. When it seemed like it had reached a fever pitch, one of the forms still sitting began to crawl forward, reaching up to touch her. He stayed on his knees and crawled towards the twitching, jerking figure, palms upward, like one of the blind beggars who sought peace in the arms of Jesus Christ. As soon as he touched her hand, the spell was broken, and the sights and sounds of the world rushed back into place. The girl gave a strangled yell, picked up her clothes, and dashed off, disappearing amongst the sands and water and masses of humans crowding in between. We continued sitting, stunned. All of the faces had returned to normal. I wondered if my face had changed at all, too, but already the event was fading from memory, as quickly as the dreams of Chan Chan. We must have sat that way for an hour, not looking at each other, sucking in the ocean air with heavy breaths like we hadn’t drawn oxygen for a long time. Eventually we got up, staggered towards the bus, and went home. We didn’t say a word to each other for the whole trip.

      That night I couldn’t sleep. My ears filled with indistinct murmuring and my eyes flashed with yellow blocks of sand. Just as the black night began to mysteriously meld into the grainy pre-dawn gray, I got up and began to walk. I walked through the dusty, dry streets of Trujillo, past the crummy stores and streetlights and parks and cars I had grown up with, past the dregs of failure and the bitter taste of regret and the suffocating memories that make up our daily lives. I walked towards the gray-red streak of dawn that led me to the ruins of Chan Chan, a huddle of yellow stones in the middle of the desert where the sky will one day meet the sea. The stones were rumbling and murmuring stronger than ever, and I could hardly resist walking up to them. When I put my hand on them, though, I felt nothing, nothing, just a silence so deep and absolute I thought the earth had swallowed me up. I kept going, though. I climbed up the rocks. There weren’t many and they were ruins anyway but I climbed. The sun was just beginning to appear and the land was splattered with a mix of terrible red, searing yellow, and deep orange. For a moment I felt electrified, and I knew that the stones of Chan Chan really had turned to gold, that I had come at the right moment to claim victory for Peru and the ancient toil that built this world. Nobody had ever really come here, I mean nobody had seen these stones as I was seeing them now. I felt an amazing burst of joy, which rose and rose as the sun continued to ascend into the sky. I thought I might cry but I didn’t. I kept climbing. The stones were bigger than I thought, and it was almost as if they were growing right before my eyes. The murmuring grew stronger and stronger. I was almost at the top.

      I knew what I would find there. Lying flat on his back, dead as the stone itself, was the gringo. I blinked as the light from the rising sun fell directly upon him. It’s hard to say what had happened. He probably tried catching a cab back to Trujillo from Huanchaco, only to be driven into the desert, where a group of Peruvian gangsters were waiting, and subsequently got mugged and beaten to death. They probably took his silence, his half-smile, as signs he was hiding real money, because, after all, he was an American. Maybe in their frustration they accidently killed him. Or maybe it was on purpose because he wouldn’t wipe that damn smirk off his face. Or maybe it was the ancients, you know? Rising out of the sand, passive faces full of suffering, looking for a fresh sacrifice to appease the stones. I’m sure the stones wouldn’t mind if he was a gringo. We’ve all got plenty of red blood, no matter where we’re from. I guess in my mind, I imagined he would be laid on the stone like the martyr of old, arms straight out, but he wasn’t at all. His clothes were torn, his eyes wide open from the shock of pain, blood matting every part of his body. His legs were contorted into funny shapes that implied broken bones.

      I didn’t know what do next so I watched him for a while. The sun was fully up and I could see cars moving on the highway, way down below, specks of glittering dust on the desert landscape. I felt like I was waking up from a long sleep, but very slowly, my eyes growing brighter and brighter with the day. There was nothing I could do for him. Not now, anyway. I listened to the stones but they had stopped murmuring, stopped rumbling. I didn’t mind, now. They were ruins but here I was, standing on top of them with the dead gringo, red from the sunburn and the spilt blood. King of the ruins, that’s me. I blinked and gazed out over the sea.

 
Kyle was born in the dead of night under the recently converted Jewish North Star. He has spent his remaining days roaming the post-apocalyptic wasteland some people still refer to as “Newark, New Jersey,” suckling at the teats of billy goats as he ravenously scours the countryside searching for human flesh- or any flesh, really, that is still considered tax deductible. He can usually be found outside the Morning Star Diner on the northwest corner of 57th and 9th dressed in rags, screaming, “you talkin’ to me??” in a desperate attempt to fit in.

 

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