City On Water
by L. Vocem
First Published in Touchstone Literary Review
Spring 2022, Kansas State University
Doña Anastasia walks with two men wearing suits along wooden planks in the drenching heat of Lago de Maracaibo. To each side, lines of small palafitos sit on stilts a meter and a half above the water. The air is humid, smelling of petroleum, human feces, with a whiff of frying oils. Doña Anastasia wears a long dress, gloves, and a hat, with a mantilla barely covering part of her face. She pulls a piece of paper with directions from her purse. She looks up towards the light poles for some signage. Everything is makeshift, but she finally notices the name of the street under the weathered wood or plank, or whatever they call it on a city above water. She turns and continues walking. She passes food stalls selling empanadas, fried lake fish, fried green plantains, coconut candy, and tamarind sweets. She notices the entrance to a palafito with several women sitting around fanning themselves. Their clothes are revealing, to her consternation – indecent.
Putas, she whispers to herself. She looks at the piece of paper, at the wooden planks that crisscross the lake. Behind her, in the distance, dry land and at the beginning of the wooden planks, a Ford Model T, with a man holding a Browning rifle standing next to it. Looming beyond the city on water, tower after tower of oil rigs emanate from the water, sucking black gold from under the muck. She is about to take another turn but realizes she is lost. She shows the paper to one of the men with her. They make faces. “No conozco Lagunillas de Agua, Doña.” I don’t know Lagunillas de Agua, Ma’am, he retorts.
She turns around and walks towards one of the women fanning herself, sitting lasciviously on a chair, eyeing the men that are with her.
“Do you know where I can find this?” she asks in Spanish, leaning and showing the paper to the woman.
She looks at it, smiles at the men, and responds, “No se leer.” I don’t know how to read.
Even though Doña Anastasia bore five children, she is still quite an attractive woman. There was a time before the depression, when she wore lavish dresses and the latest fashions that the local tailors copied from French and American magazines. Now she dresses much more frugally and conservatively.
Doña Anastasia straightens herself, looks at another set of wooden planks, and walks in that direction. She notices a blond man putting on his shirt coming out of a palafito. Gringo, she says to herself. This is where all the Gringos working the oil camps come for entertainment, an unfortunate habit her son had acquired, and she so despises this place. But, he didn’t want to follow in the footsteps of his father, her husband, the General. And thank God he didn’t become a priest. He just wanted to make money, a lot of money, and the Gringos were really bad at speaking Spanish. So he moved away from their home in Maracaibo, to a special camp for Criollos, where streets were paved, where the houses were of solid concrete block and had running water and indoor plumbing. Of course, they could not compare with the gated American oil camp, with their country club, golf course and swimming pool. His camp was not gated but while they did not have those fancy things, they did have a swimming pool and a baseball diamond, which the locals took to as a passion and were already beating the Gringos at the game.
She stops to get her bearings. Looks in one direction, then the other, hears music in the air, which sounds like Gardel. As she tries to pick out the lyrics, she notices a dark viscous substance floating on the water enveloping dead fish and garbage. The wooden poles coming out of the water are covered in black tar. To the side are double planks leading to an open room with tables and music. Men sit at several tables drinking beer. A man wearing a fedora smiles at Doña Anastasia and walks towards her with a swagger. He pulls a cigarette from a metal box, taps it, and places it in his mouth. He raises his hand as if to say something when one of Doña Anastasia’s men blocks him and opens his coat slightly, revealing a holstered pistol. The man lifts his hands slightly and frowns. He takes two steps back, smiles, and moves towards the bar.
The city, the oil camps, have been roaring with commerce and activity. The Dutch oil company even built a dike to reclaim land from the lake. Stores are packed. There are people from the capital, the Andes, the Llanos, plus the Gringos, the Dutch and the British moving around. They all talk about a great war that is going to take place. It’s no longer a war fought with swords, horses, and honorable men, but with heartless obliterating machines – that need oil. She heard that conversation so many times between her husband and sons – as they refused to go into the military. Instead, one went to study medicine and the other one accounting and now works for the American oil company.
Some bars cater to the Americans, others to the Dutch, some are playing Louis Armstrong and Glen Miller. She finds it interesting that many of the prostitutes are a mix of the local Indians and mestizos with the Gringos, so they may have chocolate complexions with blue eyes or African features with light skin and blonde wavy hair.
One of Doña Anastasia’s men points to a rusting metal sign on one of the posts. She holds the paper up, and the name is the same. She turns and follows the planks in that direction. The whole city on water is like a maze of planks, alleys, open areas, narrow causeways. One moment you smell human piss, defecation, petroleum –the next, cheap patchouli perfume, burning herbs, mondongo tripe stew, cheese empanadas, fried fish. Doña Anastasia doesn’t wear the high heel shoes she used to wear before the Depression, but she still wears tacones, a slight heel, like proper women wear. Each step she takes on the wooden planks produces a percussion sound. Tap, clock, clock, tap, clock, clock, slide.
They get to the south end of the city on water and find nothing. One of her men points in the distance, south, deep south, to lightning. There are huge clouds with lightning striking with great intensity as if God were angry and trying to tell them something.
“We should get back soon,” he says. “We still have to take the ferry back to Maracaibo and we don’t want to be caught in that mess.”
The other man chuckles.
“Where are you from, boy?” he asks, looking at the Doña to make sure he is not stepping out of line. She smiles.
“That right there is the Relámpago del Catatumbo. It’s a gift from God.”
Doña Anastasia looks at the turbulence in the distance, the clouds and the darkness. Lightning travels horizontally across the vast horizon, then all at once, four or five bolts strike down to the lake. Above her, the sky is clear and sunny.
She looks at the paper and turns around, walking in the opposite direction, heading north. She goes past where they turned and continues. A man in a white Liki-liki suit approaches and stops the moment he notices her two men.
“Una dama de su calibre no debería estar en un lugar como este.” A lady of your caliber should not be in a place like this.
She ignores him. One of her men leans towards him, and placing his finger to his mouth, blows. They continue walking. Tick, talk, ta-tock, her shoes clamor on the boardwalk. She sees the end of the plank. Beyond that are small boats, piraguas, the murky water of the lake, and the towers extracting oil from beyond the ground.
She wonders if she missed something. She walks back, studying each little house and its content. She reaches an open palafito with prostitutes. She turns and walks towards them. Some of the halfway dressed women look sleepy and tired, fanning the obliterating heat off their faces. One of them smiles at the men with Doña Anastasia. An older woman, a mulata, comes out and asks what can she do for them.
“Do you know Armando Arambia?” Doña Anastasia asks.
“I may, but he is not here,” the woman responds politely, almost with a smile.
“I know, I am looking for a señorita called Lucia. Is this where she resides?”
“Yes. She lives here. I contacted you,” the woman says. She motions with her hand toward the back of the place. One of the men walks ahead of Doña Anastasia, but she steps forward.
“Stay,” she says and the two men stand still. One puts his hand inside his coat and casually scans the place. The two women pass through narrow corridors lined with doors and small rooms to one side, boards and windows to the other with views of oil towers. They reach the back. There’s an open balcony that overlooks the lake. Doña Anastasia looks north at the water, more water spiked with oil rigs. To the south, are the clouds and the relámpago doing its dance. She turns around and sees on a couch a woman – a small woman – rather attractive. She has light brown hair, chocolate skin, and striking green eyes. She is half Indian and half whatever came through that place. She is not dressed like the rest. There’s nothing lascivious in her appearance, but it seems like they tried too hard to make her look not like a prostitute, yet it still comes across.
“Is it a boy or a girl?” Doña Anastasia asks.
“It’s a girl,” Lucia answers.
Doña Anastasia is getting ready to pepper Lucia with all the questions she had in mind, slightly angry at herself for falling into this possible charade. But even her son had started to act differently, asking her what-if questions. What if you fall in love with a woman from a lower caste, what if she has your child? What if…
“Can I see her?”
The woman brings the girl out. She is old enough to walk on her own. It looks like they had bought brand new clothes for her. She comes staring at the ground, holding her hands behind her back.
“What is your name?” Doña Anastasia asks.
The girl utters a sound that lingers, slightly audible.
“I’m sorry, what did you say?” she asks again, now crouching down to the level of the child, and with her hands bringing the child’s face up so she could see her.
“Te, Teresa,” the little girl responds, raising her face slightly as if she had done something wrong and would be punished.
Doña Anastasia holds the child’s face in her hands and can immediately see the eyebrows of the General in her, the lips of her son, even the widow’s peak of her own mother right there in front of her.
“I can assure you that this kid is your…”
“Stop,” Doña Anastasia says to the older lady. “Please tell my boys to come in.”
As the woman leaves, Doña Anastasia exchanges eye contact between Lucia and Teresa. The girl has a reluctant look, as if she has seen the darkness of the world but is yet to understand it. Doña Anastasia pulls from her purse a tamarind candy and gives it to the girl. Teresa examines it, then looks back at Lucia and again at Doña Anastasia. She opens the package and eats the sweet.
“Te gustó?” Doña Anastasia asks.
“Si,” the girl responds with a smile. She looks back at Lucia, who encourages her to keep up the interaction.
The men arrive. Doña Anastasia whispers to one of them. He reaches for a wallet opposite his holster and pulls out some money. He counts aloud as he places the paper bills in the hands of the older woman. They both nod.
“I want to make sure that Lucia gets some of it,” Doña Anastasia says. “Can you promise that?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” the woman responds.
“Teresa, do you have a room?” Doña Anastasia asks.
She shakes her head no.
“Now you will,” she responds, lifting the girl into her arms, walking toward the front of the whorehouse.