JANUARY 2018
WHAT WE MONSTERS
CALL FREE
by Robert Earle
A husband, wife and daughter were jailed in
Trinidad, capital of the department called Beni. No
one from the embassy had visited in years. But an
entire American family was involved. I bounced
down there from La Paz in an ancient DC-3.

Obtaining access entailed meeting with Beni’s
prefect. I entered Federico Suarez’s cathedral of an
office with its flaking ceilings, lopsided chandeliers,
and worn red carpet. Six hangers-on solemnly shook
my hand. Their dress varied from T-shirts and jeans
to dress shirts and suits, but no ties. Teeth, missing
teeth, and gold teeth. Cowboy boots and running
shoes. We sat around at a knee-high table set with
coffee cups, biscuits, and a bowl of coca leaves. A
discussion began. The central government ignored
Beni. Did America know this? Would the embassy
help Beni with flood control projects? Had I seen
Trinidad’s lamentable open sewers? Why should Beni
be part of Bolivia and not Brazil? Everyone spoke at
once, creating a cicada-like din. I sipped the syrupy
coffee, nibbled a biscuit, and avoided the coca leaves
one would end up chewing forever.

One man laughed. “Sir, we put the coca leaves out
for you, coming from La Paz. You’re the bocas
verdes, not us.”

Bocas verdes are “green mouths.” High in the Andes
people chew coca leaves for the anesthetic effect so
they can endure the thin air as they work, especially
in the mines. Not necessary in Beni, rimming
Amazonia, good for growing coca plants, not so good
for chewing their leaves and deepening the general
sweltering stupor. No hurry Beni, eternal Beni,
numbing by itself.

A man entered the office from a door behind an
immense desk. Suarez at last? No, his personal
lackey.

“El estimado y distinguido Federico Suarez!” he
announced.

A slender, middle-aged man in a yellow, short-
sleeved shirt and black trousers slipped past this
minion. Everyone stood up. The lackey shuffled
ahead of Suarez carrying a throne-like wooden chair
he squeezed next to me. A short bosomy waitress
with perfect skin and shining black hair refreshed
our coffee cups.

Federico Suarez had achieved his position by virtue
of
usos y costumbres that are accorded indigenous
peoples in Bolivia. One segment of Beni’s
population, the Moxeños, is in fact indigenous, and
Suarez, though clearly of Spanish descent, had a
link with them, enough to put him over the top with
the president who appointed him to office.

He began by complaining about America’s long
absence from Beni. Why had no ambassador come to
Beni in decades? Why not invest in Beni’s great
future and proximity to Brazil? Why waste our
money in that epic chasm of corruption, La Paz?

All the provinces in the world hate the central
government. No visiting diplomat can change that.
Nonetheless I mentioned that we had sent Beni
shipments of rice during recent flooding. I also said
that the ambassador hoped to visit every
department of Bolivia during his tenure.

Suarez was not impressed. “Why are you here?” he
asked.

I explained the case of the jailed American family.

“And you want them transferred to La Paz? Our
justice is better than the justice of La Paz,” he said
disdainfully.

“What is the charge?” I asked.

“This is being considered.”

“May I see them?”

Suarez tipped his head in the direction of a man in a
sharkskin suit who informed me—after the prefect’s
departure, as abrupt as his arrival—that he would
arrange a jail visit for the next day. Obviously the
family was in serious trouble with Beni’s officialdom.
Had some personal insult had been committed, more
unforgivable in Latin America than a crime?

                         *   *   *   *   *

Ezra Carlson sat in a cell that looked as if every
square inch had been chewed or scratched by one
poor devil after another for two hundred years. He
was tall, lanky, wore cowboy boots, jeans, and a
faded cowboy shirt. His gray hair was pulled back
from his weathered face in a ponytail. He had a bare
plank affixed to the wall for sitting and sleeping, a
bucket for drinking and a bucket for elimination. He
kept the water bucket on top of the elimination
bucket to block the smell. Nonetheless, the cell
stank. A slot ten feet up the wall was the only
exterior ventilation. The slot in his metal door for
passing in food was closed.

“Who are you?” he asked.

I told him I was an American Services officer of the
U.S. embassy.

“Why come see me? I’m not an American.”

“What are you?”

“I’m an anarchist. I don’t believe in countries. I
believe in people.”

“Were you ever an American?”

“I might have been before I threw my draft card and
passport in the harbor in Montevideo in 1966.”

It was 1991. Twenty-five years later.

“So you renounced your citizenship?”

“Go to Vietnam or come here. Better here.”

I sensed Ezra would reject my explanation that
tearing up a draft card and throwing away a
passport didn’t unmake him an American, so I
waited, inviting him to continue. Meanwhile the
horror of the cell seeped into me with the power of a
daytime nightmare.

“Not better being in jail,” he added, “but I’ll get out,
don’t worry.”

“How?”

“Can’t say since I don’t know why I’m here. But if I
went back to the United States, I’d be in jail
anyway, so what’s the difference?” He looked at me
with a disdain not dissimilar from Suarez’s disdain
the day before. “You’re so deep in the government
monster you probably think jails are better in the
U.S.”

The man in the sharkskin suit had said that Ezra
was in solitary confinement because he was
considered a proselytizing rabble-rouser,
disobedient, disrespectful. Could not be permitted to
stir up the other inmates.

“Why would you be jailed in the U.S.?”

“I’m a draft dodger. Ask Lyndon Johnson.”

“I can’t. He’s dead. But President Carter granted
amnesty to draft dodgers in 1977.”

Ezra assumed I was lying. “Really? One president
says go kill for your country. Another says it’s all
right to say no? He still president?”

“No, after him came Ronald Reagan—”

“The cowboy guy?”

“Yes, and now George Bush.”

“This George Bush sends you out here to help me?”

“You could say so.”

Having belittled the comic carousel of contradictory
presidents, Ezra lowered his voice and told me he
ranched out in the savannah and lived in equipoise
with the Moxeños—“share and share alike.” They
raised cattle and grew vegetables together. The
chief difference was that he and his wife and
daughter had built a ranch house with big rooms,
high ceilings, everything including plumbing and a
generator for some electricity.

“But we never claimed we owned the place. No one
does. We’re for use. It’s beautiful out there. Stars
like daylight some nights. When the wind hits the
grasses and you’re on horseback, it’s like flying on
clouds. No news. A truck coming to buy cattle, that’s
news. Flooding’s news, calving’s news. We interfered
with no one, yet now here we sit.”

My job was to ensure Americans were not being
mistreated. If possible, I was to collect facts that
might lead to extradition back to the U.S. or simple
expulsion. At the very least, as Suarez suspected, I
would petition to have the prisoner transferred to La
Paz where we could see him more easily. But I had
learned during the course of my jail visits that
prisoners seldom told you everything. I suspected
Ezra was holding something back and told him I had
to speak to his wife and daughter. He gave me an
angry look. Why should I be able to see them when
he could not? He said his wife had destroyed her
passport, too, and his daughter never had one, she
was a Bolivian, born there and would die there.

“Still, I have to see them, ” I said.

He began to weep and wiped away his tears with the
sleeve of his shirt, disgusted with himself as well as
with me. “Tell ’em I love ’em. Tell ’em we’ll get out
of this.”

The women’s cells were on the other side of a
courtyard consisting of dirt whose natural and
recurrent state was mud pocked with footprints. The
sweltering air stunned me when I stepped into it,
accompanied by a short, squat female guard. The din
we heard was frenzied, high-decibel, screaming— a
cacophony of swarming motorbikes out on Trinidad’s
battered streets. Two or three people could squeeze
onto a motorbike’s seat, the more on board, the
harder the little engines had to work. The roar
commenced at daybreak and would continue into a
night blazoned with florescent signs promoting open-
faced cafés, salons, and shops that sold everything
from canned milk to hammers.

I met Lilia Carlson first, her cell a replica of Ezra’s
but painted a flaking industrial orange. She was tall,
gaunt and wore a green jumpsuit. With her graying
hair pulled back, she resembled her husband. And
her story was the same as Ezra’s. She wasn’t an
American anymore, but something had to be done,
and apparently for the first time in decades, she
couldn’t do it.

I said, “This may be simpler than you think. Did you
know there’s an amnesty for draft dodgers during
the Vietnam War?”

“Really? No, I didn’t know that. We’ve made our life
as far away from disturbing anyone as we possibly
could, much less the poor Vietnamese. Thank God
people have been pardoned for not killing them.”

Ezra and Lilia were like Adam and Eve before the
apple. Twenty-five years had erased their grasp of
common knowledge. Such pure, principled people,
both harmless and defenseless by creed.

I asked her about their ranch, where they weren’t
romantic runaway hippies anymore. She went
farther than Ezra in painting a picture of grassy
savannah speckled with copses of trees. To the west
these foamy grasslands ascended toward the Yungas
region on the walls of the Andes while to the north
and east they descended into the Amazon basin’s
dark jungle. They lived as near to the one region as
the other and had no need for fences except for
corrals by the house and wire around the garden
plots. Ezra was the cowboy he’d always wanted to
be—a cowboy from Brooklyn, of all places. Lilia was
the gardener, cook and housekeeper. Their
daughter, Jessie, helped bring in people either to
work or to share. She spoke their language,
Ignaciano.

“How old is Jessie?”

“Twenty-two.”

“I’ll see her next.”

Lilia resisted. “I don’t see why.”

I said Jessie wasn’t a Bolivian any more than her
parents. I had to see her and check on her welfare.
Lilia didn’t yield.

“Just leave her out of it. She’ll want to stay like Ezra
will want to stay because she’s never been
anywhere else.”

“Does that imply you don’t want to stay?”

She grimaced, revealing her brown bottom teeth. A
waft of sour breath escaped her. How many times
had she and Ezra had bitter conversations that
hardened their attitudes toward the demonic
American system of capitalist imperialism? How
often had they justified to themselves their
privations and loneliness with the conviction that on
the far edges of their remote world monsters lurked
and hissed and consumed human beings in both war
and peace? She was so upset that she was trembling.

“Where I don’t want to stay is in this jail. I don’t
know how many times I’ve been raped, and I don’t
want Jessie to know, either. Look.”

She stepped out of her jumpsuit and stood before
me naked. She’d been beaten and abused. Her skin
was covered with bruises and welts, all but her
strong, austere face, eyes glaring with fear and fury.

“I want us out of here!” she hissed.

“Mrs. Carlson, what’s going on? Why
are you here?
What don’t I know about that?”

She pulled on her jumpsuit and sat on her plank.
“We’re here because Suarez wants to cultivate coca
plants for cocaine where no one’s looking, and he
wants Jessie, too. What he says about land reform
and political incitement and no visas is bullshit.
Apparently there’s nowhere on earth where anyone
can be free. Either kill Vietnamese or go to jail in
Bolivia. Look, mister, just get us out of here. If you’
ve got power, use it on Suarez not us. We want all
of you to leave us alone.”

I stepped into the gloomy corridor. The female guard
stared at me. She said nothing, but when she
quickly took me to another cell, she was telling me I
must not give up on these people, I must help.
Within I found a beautiful young woman in denim
overalls with a T-shirt beneath, her hair as bright as
the noon sun, her skin permanently tanned. She
listened to me in evident bewilderment. Replying in
Spanish, she said her father had told her all her life
that one day the monsters of the earth would appear
and she must learn how to make herself small and
unnoticeable if she wanted to remain free, a girl who
could ride her horse anywhere and make the friends
she wanted to and be a good person.

I asked her who these monsters might be.

She said she guessed I would be one of them,
Suarez would be one of them, the Moxies wouldn’t
be monsters, but all the priests and missionaries and
equipment salesmen definitely would.

“It’s what you are. All of you. How did you get here?
How did any of you decide on doing this to us?”

She wasn’t deranged. She came from some
untamed, unbounded place that was her life. Legally
an American, culturally no, someone absolutely not
like me resting in the non-world Ezra and Lilia had
created in the heaving bosom of the savannah.

I asked her to tell me about Prefect Suarez. Did she
know him?

“Yes, I know him. He wants to marry me, and I’m
not going to do it. Once he gets that through his
head, we’ll get out of here. It’s what this is all about.
We all know that.”

I asked her if she had been harmed during her
detention. She had very large blue eyes that grew
larger in shock. She said no, of course not.

I waited a moment to see if my question would
prompt her to ask me if her parents had been
harmed. That didn’t happen. I didn’t know if I should
try to tell her. Would she assume that I, a monster,
would naturally say such things to scare her into
marrying Suarez—and also yielding to his plan of
appropriating land for coca fields?

To find my footing, I asked about how she normally
lived. She said she looked after cattle, worked in the
garden and the house, sometimes went down along
the rivers and fished and explored. Same as Ezra.
Same as Lilia. Something about the way she said
their names made me sense she didn’t regard them
as her parents in the way that I thought of my
parents. Had Ezra succeeded in detaching her from
the idea of parents, or from ever permitting it to
take hold? Was this a feature of his disbelief in the
concept of possessions? Your children weren’t yours
and your parents weren’t yours because families
were a theft of one’s identity, one’s nature, one’s
very being?

I tried this: “If I could help you and Ezra and Lilia
get out of this jail and go to the United States,
would you welcome that?”

“I want to go back to the ranch. When I get out of
here, that’s where I’ll head. They will, too.”

“The government doesn’t want you there. Under
their law, it’s land that can be seized and
redistributed. It belongs to no one.”

She said, “Who said it did? But we could still live
there, couldn’t we? No one else does.”

I tried another tack. “How did you happen to
encounter Suarez?”

“He came looking for a place where he could tear up
the land for coca plants. We told him that was ranch
land, not farming land. He said he’d do it anyway.
We said we couldn’t stop him, but we wouldn’t help
him. Then he came back and he made this speech as
though we were a big crowd, just the three of us in
the parlor. All about how he wanted to marry me. I
asked him if he was crazy. I said I knew boys when I
wanted sex. He got upset and insisted I not say that
and marry him. I said no. Then one morning some
men came and grabbed us and here we are.”

Many men would want to marry Jessie if they didn’t
think about it. She was that wildly beautiful, like all
of nature in a human body. But she also was beyond
tethering—distant-eyed, skeptical, willful.

“The guards are raping Lilia,” I said. “They’ll do it
until you give the prefect what he wants, or I get
you expelled.”

She looked at me as though I really were a ghastly,
horrible monster. The thing Ezra had always warned
her about was in the cell with her.

“You’re lying! Get out! Go away! Tell Suarez when I
said no, I meant no!”

I flew back to La Paz with the roaring engines of my
old plane straining to climb the sides of the Andes
up into the desolate heavens. When I landed I
reported that three Americans had been unjustly
incarcerated and one was being sexually abused.
The words poured out of my pen, but I didn’t feel a
thing because the words I had to write weren’t my
words. These are my words. I’m the one who
engineered their deportation, condemning them to
live as what we monsters call free.


Robert Earle’s short fiction has appeared in scores of literary journals. His
latest collection of stories is She Received the Night (Vine Leaves Press).
He also has published a book of nonfiction about a year in Iraq, Nights in
the Pink Motel (Naval Institute Press), and a novel, The Way Home
(DayBue). He lives in Durham, North Carolina. His website is
robertearle.
me and his Twitter handle is Writer@RobertLeeEarle.