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Dusty pavement, conjugation, rum-soaked mouths, red clay, a stash of pesos, fading photos, wailing cats, winding concrete steps, tabletop mountains, condors, permanent jet lag & Salta.


The other men slept on the ride in to the Cabra Corral hydroelectric plant. I only slept on the ride home. Mine was an emphatic, desperate sleep. There was something showy about it. I slept with my mouth open, seat-belt lines imprinted on my face when I came to outside the posada and climbed over the other men and stepped out of the van and into the sun, as if starting the day for a second time. Get some sleep, someone would say, for the love of God, get some sleep, friend, and I would nod and oblige, and then I would be just as tired the next time I saw them.

The other men were tired in a different way. I never asked what kept them up at night. Their sleep was routine. It had a purpose. The purpose was to kill the ninety minutes it took to get from the city to the hydroelectric plant. No one snored, no one shifted or twitched. There was stillness on those rides. I know because I was awake. Or not asleep, at least. Sometimes I pretended to be asleep, but I never was. More often I stared out the window and watched the landscape emerge from obscurity and take its strange shape. Strange to me, anyway. Tabletop mountains dimly drawn in the man-made lake. A cactus wondering where all the water came from, wondering what all the water was for. Dusty pavement turned to dusty red clay as we pulled up to the chain-link fence with the barbed wire, the gate with its encouraging sign: 3,481 days without an accident. I never asked why the number didn’t change, why the counting had stopped. Everyone was asleep when I read it and I didn’t want to disturb them by asking the driver. The driver probably didn’t want to be disturbed either. He looked as tired as the rest of them.

Sometimes I pretended to be asleep, but I never was. More often, I stared out the window and watched the landscape emerge from obscurity and take its strange shape.

The men were engineers and technicians at the plant. I was their English teacher. I was twenty-three. It was my first real job, if that’s what it was. I spent two days a week with them, waiting in a small boardroom with windows that looked out onto the dam and the red cliffs, an occasional condor circling overhead. They came in one at a time to conjugate verbs. Simple past, past continuous, present continuous, future continuous. When I had time between sessions I read a few pages of a philosophy book I had picked up in a used bookstore in Salta. The book was about consciousness. It said that objective neuronal processes were responsible for our subjective feelings. I was interested in how lack of sleep altered the experience of time. The engineers seemed happy for the interruption, even if it would have been generous to attribute anything resembling progress to our sessions. The weeks poured into one another and became indistinguishable, like the water filling the man-made lake. One day there was a dead bird outside the window. It was still there the following week, unless it was a different dead bird. Sometimes I played English songs and asked the engineers and technicians to fill in the missing lyrics on a sheet I’d prepared. One song was about a beach in Buenos Aires. Let’s speak of the past in the future perfect tense, it said. The places we will go… The beach in the song felt far away, like everything else. On the days I wasn’t at the Cabra Corral I taught teenagers at a school in the evenings. And tobacco executives, also in the evenings, in a boardroom filled with smoke.

I rented a room for almost nothing because I made almost nothing. The posada had hot water if you got up early enough. A cat wailed throughout the night. I shared the room with two other men. One was a middle-aged Peruvian, displaced for reasons that were never clear. His family, his daughters, were in Arequipa and he was in northern Argentina—that was it. He had photos of them by his bed. They were the only decorations in the whole room. The other man was a young Argentine, younger than me, maybe, and not someone I wanted to get to know. He talked about killing the cat. He had a plan, involving sardines and a knife. He showed me the knife. When he disappeared one night without warning, without having paid the rent he owed the señora who ran the posada, I was surprised that he had only taken the meagre stash of pesos I kept in my bedside table. My cards and passport were still there. I never heard the cat again.

The weeks poured into one another and became indistinguishable, like the water filling the man-made lake.

One night one of the other boarders, a local who worked as a hairdresser, had the idea that I should spend the night in her room instead of my crowded one. Maybe it was my idea. We had been out on Calle Balcarce. We got home very late. I remember her rum-soaked mouth at the foot of the stairs. She was worried about the señora, who evidently kept tabs on her. We had shuffled up a half-dozen white, winding concrete steps when the señora called out from above, Vicki, is it you? Vicki put her finger on my lips and said, Yes, señora, it’s me, Vicki. And the señora closed her door and we continued up the stairs and into Vicki’s room. But she was still anxious. She could get evicted for this, she said. Sound travelled through these old walls like ghosts who’ve been haunting the same castle for centuries, she said. Do you believe in ghosts, I asked. She looked at me like it was a stupid question. Or maybe she was looking past me, listening for the señora, or looking through me as if I were a ghost. We waited, listening in the dark, until we fell asleep.

The señora treated me better than she treated the other boarders, which wasn’t saying much. The other boarders would talk about her, too loudly, I thought, though maybe I was overly sensitive to what the señora could hear and understand. She provided breakfast and lunch if we were around to take it. For dinner we were on our own. I had no idea how she spent her evenings. She presented her meals in the same gruff way she laid out the terms for rent. Milanesa con papas fritas, she would say, looking me in the eye as she put the dish down. Ñoquis con salsa rosa. Everything she said indicated great effort to maintain a fixed idea, as if she were reciting Bible passages whose resonance had faded long ago. Words blowing in the red dust like discarded exoskeletons. I wondered if she had ever believed in her meals. I would try to muster the faintest enthusiasm, grunting approval, ignoring that the ñoquis was cold, that the milanesa was much greyer than it should have been.

It was like a vague and pervasive nausea that at times made the world appear very beautiful, at other times utterly hopeless.

One morning over breakfast she told me I looked like her son. She was wearing the same black cardigan she wore every morning, which had either stretched over the years or only looked that way as she became smaller and more hunched. This was the first I had heard of a son. The señora brought out pictures to show me. They were all the same: a man, alone, a perfunctory gaze against the backdrop of a different city: Paris, Madrid, Los Angeles, Cairo, Saint Petersburg. He lived in Texas now, she said. Time was presumably passing somewhere in these images. In the imperceptible extensions to the lines on his face. In the marginal decay of the familiar landmarks. In the senescent longing of the old woman holding the fading photos in her shaky hands. Her son didn’t look a thing like me. He didn’t look like the señora, either.

It was impossible to sleep on the nights before working at the Cabra Corral, knowing the van would be outside at 5 a.m. I worried that I would sleep through my alarm, or that the cheap device wouldn’t work, or that the batteries would die. I worried about other things, too. An old clock in some cold corner of the posada announced fresh quarter-hours all through the night. I never heard it during the day. If the Peruvian man was away, presumably back in Arequipa with his family, I would turn on the light and read the philosophy book. When he was there I lay still in the darkness, like a ghost. The book described rational or waking consciousness as one possible conscious state among many. Those states were informed by the objective world, by biological processes. I slept only a couple of hours on those nights. And then I made up for it on the other nights. This cycle of lack and glut made for a constant disorientation, like permanent jet lag. Not the kind of conscious state commonly associated with clarity, purpose, action, stability or success. It was like a vague and pervasive nausea that at times made the world appear very beautiful, at other times utterly hopeless. It allowed me to believe that none of this was real, that the real part was somewhere else. And maybe that was true. My students were tired in a different way. My exhaustion was temporary, I thought. I would sleep in the van on the ride back to Salta. I would sleep when I quit these jobs, which could be any day now. I would sleep when I left this dusty city in northern Argentina for somewhere else. This was impermanent, I knew, even if I didn’t know what permanence felt like. I was still deciding whether I wanted to. I didn’t want to feel tired the way the engineers did. I asked them if the dead bird was the same dead bird as the previous week and nobody knew. I hummed the song about a beach in Buenos Aires. I wasn’t sure what aging felt like. I started to wonder if it was just a matter of counting the days without accidents until you decide it’s no longer worth keeping track, or until you forget how to count, or what it is you’re counting.

Everything she said indicated great effort to maintain a fixed idea, as if she were reciting Bible passages whose resonance had faded long ago.

One night, in a typically fitful sleep before a day at the Cabra Corral, I dreamed I was posing for photos in front of cardboard images of famous landmarks: the Sagrada Familia, the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The señora operated an antique camera. She pulled the shutter with a string, nodding solemnly, not saying a word as she worked. Her black cardigan drooped to the ground, sweeping the floor behind her as she shuffled back and forth between the camera and the backdrops, replacing them with new sights. Back and forth. My expression was the same in every photo.

Some nights I thought about Vicki, who had long since moved out. I thought about finding her and marrying her. I pictured an earnest conversation with her father in a cold stone courtyard with a fountain that was turned off for the season. Or maybe the fountain had been turned off for much longer. Some nights I vowed to never marry anyone. To never stop moving enough for that, to never worry about accidents and sleep. Sometimes I spent entire days in bed doing nothing but worrying and sleeping. Eventually I did move on, of course. Sometime before the 3,482nd day. That was years ago. It’s hard to tell whether anything is more permanent now. I can only say I spend less time thinking about it.

Mark Burgess is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His fiction has also appeared in The New Quarterly.​

Lead image: Vivek Kumar Singh

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1 Comment

  1. This piece by Mark Burgess allowed me the opportunity to experience a state of transience and impermanence, a condition mostly unfamiliar to me as my life has been so deeply rooted and permanent for most of the time. While there was a period in my life that was transitory, not only after my undergraduate years but during them, those times seem so very far away now. Do I miss them? I’m not sure! I thank Mark for bringing those times back to me and for introducing me to the far reaches of northern Argentina, especially since I never ventured very far from Buenos Aires when I visited that country. Here’s to a long future of accident-free days.

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