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.”
“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?”
“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.