Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of
Volume 14, Number 2
Copyright © 2019
by Leah Browning, Editor.
All future rights to
in the Apple Valley
Review are retained by
the individual authors
Fiction by Richard Ward
I visit with Carlos at his bookstand on Veintimilla every morning before
going to work at a university here in Quito where I teach English. Carlos, who
looks a little like Picasso, is always on the lookout. “Mira, Ted, es para ti,” he
says, sotto voce, touching my arm. I laugh and say, “No, Carlitos, para ti,”
and he shakes his head wistfully, for Carlos is unhappily married to a woman
with health problems and is tied to the daily routine of scratching his way
through life with his meager used book business. He’s always asking me about
the women in the U.S., and is fascinated with the wild excesses of that culture.
I tell him everything he wants to hear and more, and he shakes his head in
wonder, as indeed, do I.
My friend wakes up every morning at 5:30 and takes the one-hour bus
ride from his home in Valle de Los Chillos to his spot on Veintimilla, goes
upstairs in the small office building to the space he rents for $20 monthly
where he keeps his stuff, cardboard boxes full of a wildly random selection
of used books, sawhorses, and two pieces of warped particle board that
serve as tables. He has a big sheet of clear plastic for the rain. His books
range from sex manuals to arcane, outdated disquisitions on linguistics and
everything in between. One of his treasures is a battered paperback copy
of Being and Nothingness in Portuguese. He has no idea what it is. I’m
tempted to buy it as a reminder of him when I leave, but I probably never will.
Silvia, tall, young, dark, came by Carlos’ bookstand one morning. Silvia
teaches English at the same university as I do, but we have different schedules
and had never met. Since then I’ve gone out of my way to seek her out and
we’ve had lunch together a few times and gone on several Sunday excursions
around the city. Silvia is cheerful and bright, speaks English fluently, and gets
a kick out of my gringo ways and leftist politics, which, up to a point, she
shares. She is wary of the U.S.—mindful of its history in Latin America—and
is a supporter of Correa, the president here, who has kicked the U.S. military
out of the country, told the IMF to take a hike, built new roads and bridges,
and has initiated programs for the poor. He calls this La Revolución
Ciudadana, and we are both in favor. But all the time we’re together and
talking about these things my mind is elsewhere, which would account for, at
least partly, her playfulness with me, as she knows, surely, she knows.
The truth is I’m not much different than Carlos. I’m unhappily married to
a melodramatic, overweight harridan and the main reason I’m in Ecuador, in
addition to fulfilling a lifelong dream of going to South America, is to
temporarily escape this shitty marriage which I have no idea how to get out of.
Anyway, Silvia is twenty-seven and I’m fifty-six. More than twice her age.
Ridiculous. She could be my daughter.
We have our little fantasies, Carlos and I. Of course I have the
advantage of having a few extra U.S. dollars to spend and a TESOL license,
and so here I am in South America with my gringo dollars while Carlos trudges
through life riding his wheezing burro every morning to peddle his books in the
market, returning home faithfully at night to his sickly wife and teenage son
who spends all his time in his room on the internet.
No question, Silvia’s a flirt, but I’m buffaloed as to her intentions. Here
people get close to you physically in their normal interactions, not like the U.S.,
and when Silvia gets into my space, which I obviously don’t mind, my poor
little libido gets into a ruffle. But I play it cool, not that I can hide anything,
and the little smile that twitches and teases the corners of her lovely lips reveals
her awareness of my turmoil, which seemingly delights her, the little vixen.
But Silvia is good, Silvia is intelligent, Silvia is honorable. Me, not so
honorable, not so good, not so intelligent. I’ve told her that I’m divorced and
am thinking of living in Ecuador permanently, which does cross my mind, the
hell with the marriage, the dreary job, the thankless children, the whole bloody
scene. But I am a hapless metal filing pulled back by some monstrous
electromagnet, resigned to returning to the catastrophe that is my life.
Carlos knows that Silvia and I are friends and that we spend time
together, and this fascinates him. He is endlessly curious and asks leading
questions but has the decency not to come right out with it. I respond as
teasingly with him as Silvia does with me, “Somos amigos, Carlitos, nada
más.” But I say it with a smile, as if there could be something more, and this
drives him crazy. He’s convinced that I, of the fabled, all-powerful gringo
tribe, am simply going about my god-appointed routines and privileges,
notching up one imperial conquest after another.
Carlos is also convinced that I am rich. He cannot imagine a gringo with
little money. He knows that I am a high school teacher and normally have to
work summers to help with household finances, slave to the usual debts, car
payments, credit cards, medical expenses, etc., but it doesn’t matter. What I
do have is enough years of dreary, embattled servitude at the same school to
allow for a year’s leave, my job waiting like some cell to be reoccupied by a
prisoner returned from furlough, replete with ankle bracelet, to serve the
remaining years of his sentence until release, a beaten man, to take up his
hobbies and reflect on a cornucopia of cherished memories. What a joke.
But you can’t tell this to someone like Carlos who has known only poverty
and struggle his entire life. The streets of America are still paved with gold
and opportunities are boundless.
Of the eight months I’ve been here the last three Silvia has been in my
life. She fills my head with wonder and delicious ambiguity. I am almost
deliriously happy when I am with Silvia, a hemispheric reversal compared to
my wretchedness at home. The difference in reality for me is so dramatic that
I go for weeks now without thinking about the U.S. and my miserable life
there, as if it didn’t exist, only a milky haze swirling around with snatches of
voices and images, devoid of meaning and emotion. I forget my wife,
sometimes not even remembering her face, or even her name. It’s the same
with my children, both grown and away from home. Did we get along? Did
we love each other? Do they even exist? I don’t know, and hardly care. I
am so happy now. I have never felt like this.
Call it amnesia, I don’t know. Maybe I should be alarmed, but I’m not.
I am experiencing the present so intensely that my loss of memory doesn’t
bother me. It’s not as though I’ve forgotten completely, I mean, I know who
I am and where I come from, but it takes the most concentrated effort to
bring up specific memories and images. Two powerful forces have collided,
and the stronger has obliterated the weaker.
Though I sometimes wonder if I am actually losing my mind.
Carlos hasn’t been at his bookstand for two days and I text him. His
wife, Maria Carmen, is in the hospital. They fear liver cancer. Tests will be
done. I know Carlos well enough to imagine his frantic state of mind. They
have no money and the medical system here is hit or miss—for the poor, as
everywhere, usually miss.
One of my afternoon classes is composed of professionals, a couple of
doctors, a lawyer, the rest business and administrative types. It is a small
class, only eight students, and we get along pretty well, though I have to
watch what I say, politically. Most of the middle class here doesn’t like
Correa and his Revolución Ciudadana. These people have some influence
and might actually complain if I said something they didn’t like. But one of
them, Dr. Hidalgo, I know from before. He was recommended by a
colleague and saw me for my blood pressure when I first arrived. We have
become friendly and he sometimes stays after class a few minutes to chat.
Dr. Hidalgo’s a supporter of the president and appreciates his attempts to
improve the medical system and provide better service to the poor. I tell him
about Maria Carmen and he shakes his head and asks me what kind of
coverage they have. I have no idea. Things are better, he says, but they can
be very difficult unless you have money. Dr. Hidalgo is a dignified man, in
his mid-sixties, muy simpatico. He has two sons, one of whom is getting his
PhD at this university. His older son is a doctor in Chile. His wife was born
in Santiago, where they have an apartment.
Friday evening Silvia and I go to a free documentary at La Casa de La
Cultura, a big cultural complex near the university. They are showing La
Batalla de Chile, part one, La Insurreción de La Burguesía. The film starts
at 7:30. I get there at 7:00 and wait for Silvia. There is no one there when I
arrive, which doesn’t surprise me, as everyone in Ecuador waits until the last
minute, and then they wait longer, as the event itself usually starts late. About
7:20 a tastefully dressed older middle-aged woman wearing a silver and
turquoise necklace takes a spot next to me. She has black hair streaked with
white and large, dark eyebrows. As we are the only ones in line, we talk.
My Spanish is not very good and so our conversation is limited, but I learn
that she is from Chile and lived in Santiago during the Pinochet dictatorship.
Her name is Teresa. I tell her that one of my students is a doctor whose wife
is from Chile, and she says yes, that is my husband, Enrique.
The lobby begins to fill and Silvia arrives at 7:30. The three of us stand
at the front as I introduce her to Teresa and they launch into an intense
conversation in rapid Spanish that leaves me far behind. This is okay with me
and I am pleased because Silvia and Teresa obviously connect. By the time
the doors are opened at 7:45 they are like old friends.
After the documentary Silvia and Teresa continue their intense
conversation as we leave the theater. It has rained. The colors of the
surrounding lights are reflected in the wet streets, a typical Quito evening.
Traffic sizzles. Teresa is agitated and seems almost on the verge of tears.
Silvia tries to comfort her, but the film has upset her, too.
Teresa invites us to her apartment for some tea and snacks, not too far
from the theater and my own neighborhood, La Floresta. We take a cab
and Teresa insists on paying. I know this area and have walked through it
many times. It is pleasant and middle class. There are vines on the protective
walls around Teresa’s building. Cemented to the top of the walls are the
shards of broken glass one sees everywhere here to deter thieves. It is a
modern building and Teresa and her husband live on the third floor. I wonder
if Dr. Hidalgo is home but Teresa says he left that afternoon for a conference
The apartment is full of stuffed furniture and bad paintings. A chandelier
hangs over the dining room table. The ubiquitous little dog Ecuadorians love
so much is here too, rolling on its back, displaying its sheathed little penis. It
is the same dog I see everywhere in Quito, with the same rhinestone collar.
Its name is Cuco. It is a dirty white and looks like a poodle. Silvia is smitten
and gushes over the ugly thing. I make a face and Silvia laughs and scolds
me for not liking the dog.
Teresa comes to the living room with a jade-colored ceramic pot of hot
water and packets of herbal tea and three cups. She goes back to the
kitchen and returns with a tray of cheese, crackers, olives, and small carrots
from a package. None of this looks appealing. I choose manzanilla and
eat a few olives and carrots as Teresa tells us the story of her life during the
Pinochet years. Her English is poor so she speaks Spanish, slowly, for my
“Enrique and I were students during the Allende presidency, and we
supported him. Enrique is Ecuadorian but he was going to medical school
in Santiago at the time. That’s where we met. I was studying to be a doctor,
too, but I became pregnant with our first son, David, and I stopped going to
school to have the child and take care of him.”
Teresa sighs and sips her tea in a very deliberate, almost theatrical
manner. Already the atmosphere in the room has shifted. We watch her as
she sighs again and wipes her lips with a paper napkin. I have another sip
of manzanilla and carefully place the cup in the saucer. Silvia is looking at
“We were very much aware of the counter-revolutionary bourgeois
forces against Allende but I suppose we were naïve because we thought his
government would survive, despite the opposition, which we also knew was
supported by the United States, it was very obvious.
“It was a very difficult time, the months before the coup. I come from
a middle class family and it caused big problems. My parents were opposed
to Allende. We had terrible arguments. I left home and lived in an apartment
with Enrique. I was pregnant. My parents refused to talk to me, even with a
child coming. I have two younger sisters and an older brother. I should say,
I had an older brother. He was disappeared by Pinochet. His name was
Teresa stops and begins to quietly cry. Silvia and I reach out reflexively
and put our hands on her shoulders. Silvia hands her a clean napkin. There
“My sisters were too young to have an opinion. They didn’t know what
was going on, but they were afraid. We all were. Enrique continued assuring
me that things would be all right, that things would pass, and Allende would
continue to be president. I listened to him, of course. He was older, and very
wise for his age, and he was the father of my child. But he was wrong. We
had our own September 11th, a horrible day. I was eight months pregnant.
We stayed in our apartment the whole day, too frightened to go out. Everyone
knew we supported Allende. My brother, Tomás, was a journalist and
worked for a newspaper that was in favor of Allende. We knew immediately
that the new government would persecute everyone associated with Allende,
intellectuals, liberals, journalists, even students, like us. But we were most
afraid for Tomás. We knew he would be a victim, and he was.”
“What happened to your brother?” asks Silvia.
“We never saw him again. The day of the coup, and for more than a
week, our phones didn’t work. We were in a panic, my family, everybody.
We went all over the city, looking, but it was very scary. Everywhere there
were soldiers, intimidating people, even shooting them. There was a curfew.
We had to be off the streets at six o’clock. Then we knew that Pinochet
was the leader. We all knew him. He was a very hard man. A bad man.
The middle class and the rich loved him. My parents said nothing against
him, even though their oldest child had been disappeared. It was incredible.
I vowed never to speak to them again, but I did, of course, because of
I think about myself in 1973. I was a freshman in high school,
preoccupied with girls and sports. I knew nothing about Chile. If anything,
I would have applauded the overthrow of a socialist government.
“You never heard anything about Tomás?” asks Silvia.
“There were rumors, but nothing definite. We heard that he was held
at the stadium, but no one saw him afterwards. They killed him, I am sure.
Maybe they took him in a helicopter and dropped him in the sea.”
“Yes, I’ve heard about that,” I say. I have also heard about the U.S.
military throwing Viet Cong suspects out of helicopters, something I never
would have believed at the time. I doubt Silvia knows about this. Vietnam
is ancient history. Maybe Teresa knows. I was a young patriot, strongly in
favor of the fight against communism.
“That is horrible,” says Silvia. “So you stayed in Chile during Pinochet?”
“We stayed for one year, and then left to Ecuador. I didn’t want to
leave because my son was just born and I wanted to find out what happened
to my brother. It was terrible. People were afraid. You couldn’t trust
anybody, your neighbors, even your friends. There were spies, secret police.
If you were suspected of being from the left you were informed on. Even if
you read books, or the wrong kind of books, you could be in trouble. Not
only was there a ban on free speech, there was even a ban on thinking, on
reading. We had a lot of books, on politics, art, philosophy, literature. We
loved Neruda, for example. To be caught with a book by Neruda could be
a death sentence. So what we did—a lot of people did this—is that we took
all our books and put them in heavy plastic bags and buried them in the
woods nearby. We did this at night. We dug deep holes and buried them.
Many years later, after Pinochet, we returned to the place and dug them up
again. They were still there. Most were ruined, but many were okay. My
favorite Neruda book was damaged, but still okay.”
I don’t think anyone realizes it, not even Teresa, but her voice has
lowered almost to a whisper, and the atmosphere has grown tense, as if we
are back in those dreadful days. Silvia speaks to Teresa, her own voice
very quiet, “Was it difficult to leave Chile? How did you do it?”
“Because Enrique was an Ecuadorian citizen, and we had married, it
was possible. But it was very difficult. If Enrique was Chilean I don’t think
it would happen. They knew we were students, naturally, and liberals, and
automatically it made us enemies of the government. But Enrique’s parents
were from the middle class, as were mine, and so we could do it. But we
had some very scary times with officials and at the airport. If a person didn’t
have the connections that we had, they couldn’t get out. It was a nightmare.”
We sit in silence for several moments. Teresa sighs. “I will show you a
picture of Tomás.”
She gets up and retrieves a framed colored picture from a table. It
shows a smiling handsome young man of about twenty. He is wearing a
white shirt with red markings. His teeth are very white and perfect, his hair
black and long to the collar. We look at it, not quite knowing what to say.
“Que guapo. Que triste,” says Silvia.
“Yes. Very handsome. Very sad. I’m very sorry,” I say, almost
On Monday, after class, I speak with Dr. Hidalgo.
“My wife told me about meeting you and your friend. What a
coincidence. I suppose that she told you about living in Santiago after the
overthrow of Allende. Well, I have to tell you, Ted, that everything she told
you is something from her imagination. We left Santiago several months
before the coup. We knew what was coming. We never lived in Chile
during Pinochet. Teresa was so traumatized by what happened that she still
thinks that we lived there during Pinochet. It is very strange, and of course
I have tried to explain what really happened, but she doesn’t believe me.
She thinks that I am trying to make her feel better, to take away the
nightmare. She refuses to believe. She holds those memories forever. It is
a total invention. It is very strange, I know, but those memories are more
real to her than reality itself. In all other ways she is normal, but not this.”
“And the story of her brother, Tomás, is that true? And the conflict with
“Yes, that is all true. And the people burying their books, the terror,
all of that is true. I think perhaps because of the pain of losing her older
brother, whom she loved very much, and perhaps the terrible guilt she feels
for leaving before his disappearance, she has invented these memories. I
think in some way it is good for her to have these memories. I am a doctor.
My impulse is to heal. But I have stopped trying to convince her of the truth.
Sometimes our own truths, our own inventions, are more powerful than the
objective truth, if there is such a thing. Sometimes they are necessary for
our survival. I think this is the case with my wife. So I leave her alone.”
Of course I am stunned. “Damn. That’s an incredible story. I’m very
sorry this all happened.”
After Dr. Hidalgo leaves I stand for several minutes looking out the
window at the traffic below. I think about my life of fifty-six years and how
little I know, how little I have seen. I feel like a child. In less than two
months I will be leaving Quito.
Carlos is at his bookstand on Tuesday, depressed and anxious. They
are awaiting the results of Maria Carmen’s biopsy. His business has been
slow. He asks if he can borrow $100 and I tell him yes, though I suspect he
will never repay me. After all, I am the rich gringo.
Three weeks go by. The results of Maria Carmen’s biopsy are negative.
She is still sick, however, and will return to the clinic for further tests. Carlos
has not mentioned the loan and he is in bad humor, even hostile. I suggest
that instead of paying me back that I take what he owes me in trade, a little
at a time, and he agrees. The first thing I take is Being and Nothingness,
though I now realize the book is in Italian, not Portuguese. Why I thought
Portuguese I have no idea. The other book I choose, a recent arrival, is a
paperback copy of Norman Mailer’s Existential Errands, in English. How
Carlos ends up with these things is a mystery.
On the evening of my departure Silvia borrows her mother’s car and
drives me to the airport. As she drives, Silvia is her usual ebullient self, but
I am quiet, not thinking too much. The new airport is a forty-five-minute
drive from Quito. It is cool and wet, and by the time we get to the airport it
is raining. Silvia doesn’t stay long in the terminal, which is good because I
realize more than ever how much I love her. She gives me a hug and I kiss
her on the cheek. The plane leaves in two hours. All that I have not been
thinking about rushes back. I am returning to a bad dream of my own
making, down a mineshaft, a long way to the bottom.