The Chicken Joint
A scratch awakens him. Piece of shit cat. His body is soaked in sweat, as if he had a fever. He dries his face with the back of his right hand, which luckily isn’t shaking today. A coughing fit catches him off guard. Something comes out. Better this way, get it all out so my lungs are empty. The clock pinpoints the time: almost three. His body moves slowly due to a hangover, but a little coffee will get him going. There’s a missed call waiting on his cellphone. It’s Juan, I’ll call him back later. The cat moves its tail timidly, standing at attention like a soldier next to its food bowl. Piece of shit cat. He pours himself a cup of coffee. He’s not in the mood for sugar; he’s discovered that it makes his hand shake. The cat starts to meow mid-cup. The scratch still burns, so he lets it meow. And meow. And keep meowing.
He goes to the bathroom to shave and lingers a few seconds as he chooses today’s razor. He has five. Each one commemorates something special. He feels a deep, stabbing pain, burning in the pit of his stomach. Is that what it feels like? Is that what they feel? Maybe he should stop drinking coffee. He chooses the only razor with a wooden handle. It’s the one that brings back the best memories. The shaving cream is ready. He enjoys the clean brush of metal and the scraping sound of the hairs as they separate from his chin. He’s almost through. He always makes the same face when he uses the razor with the wooden handle. Maybe that’s why he chose it today. He pauses the blade on his jugular. He knows the precise spot where the tissue separates most efficiently. The process can be very clean, but there can be slip-ups that leave puddles everywhere. Some poor S.O.B.s lose jobs because of it.
He finishes shaving without spilling a single drop of blood. That’s precision. He finally goes and gives the cat some milk. The girl he was going out with until a couple of weeks ago left it with him. He was baffled by his own patience in accepting it and not throwing it out onto the street. Juan’s call comes in. This time he answers it.
Quique knows who they are.
He’s had the hardware picked out and ready since yesterday, which makes the evening seem like a bundle of meaningless hours. He’s done everything he can to avoid any routine act. For him, routine is a sign of weakness. He must avoid being predictable. No one can know what the next item on his agenda is. The idea repulses him. But Juan knows what’s coming later. That calculation doesn’t enter into his conception of routine. It’s made him hungry.
The cat finished all its milk. He watches it clean its paw. He wants to get rid of it, but he’d just as soon put if off until tomorrow, like he’s done every day since his girl left it and left him. Maybe she’ll come back and take it with her.
He goes out into the city and is struck by the sound of reggaetón. She’s going to drop. Going to drop by herself. When she feels the boom! That part always makes him laugh. He’s seen a lot of girls drop because of the boom. He imagines them like shattered bowling pins, crashing against the floor. He hates anything that becomes splattered or covered in red, but something about it makes him laugh. Perhaps it’s the surprise that makes him laugh. No one expects to drop because of a boom. They think their lives are going to go on forever.
He walks several blocks and stops briefly at the newspaper stand. The headlines are always the same, another routine that disgusts him. They make him want to torch the kiosk; there’s never any news about him. It’s about time, isn’t it? So many bowling pins, and they never mention what I do. It’s as if all the papers were conspiring against him. They have no idea. They think everything is a sum of bodies that drop. They can’t imagine the precision and finesse that each job requires. He feels another stabbing pain pierces his abdomen. He walks away from the kiosk.
He arrives at the chicken joint.
His palate trembles in the presence of the sea that his mouth has become. He reacts instinctively in the presence of the restaurant’s smell. He enjoys the simple smell of spices, seared skin, smoked meat. Charcoal. At that hour, the chicken joint is packed with families, screaming children; he’s the only person by himself. He orders half a chicken. With potatoes. Salad is a useless accessory in his carnivorous pastime. He devours everything without mercy. He doesn’t even spare the bones. Two boys are running around the restaurant, pretending to shoot each other with plastic guns. They’re holding them wrong, he wouldn’t hire them, maybe if I trained them they’d be worth something down the road. He laughs to himself.
He decides to order another quarter chicken. He knows he’ll get hungry later but won’t be able to order anything. The quarter chicken is granted clemency. There are a few bones left. He gets a text message. He goes to meet Quique at the bar across the street.
The children continue running around with their worthless pistols. He can’t resist walking up to the older-looking one. Look, kid, this is how you do it. He straightens his arm, tweaks the position of his finger on the trigger, and adjusts his legs. Body balance is very important. The boy doesn’t resist the adjustments. If you want it to be quick, you gotta shoot right between the eyes. But don’t look at them, because later their eyes will try to devour you. The boy practices a couple of shots then turns around in search of his approval, but he’s already gone.
At the bar, Quique confirms the men’s description, the time, and the place. He hands him the envelope with half of the agreed amount. He doesn’t even count it. When Quique begins to list the reasons, because he loves to gossip, he gestures that he’s going to leave, and Quique shuts up. I don’t need to know anything about his life or the reason; this is just a job. The rest is none of my business. Quique doesn’t want to jeopardize the plan, so he talks about other things: the latest soccer scores, the money he lost at the horse track, things like that. He intentionally avoids talking to him about women. He knows the cat story. By the fourth beer, another stabbing pain leaves him unable to talk or breathe for a few seconds. Suspended in that open space in the center of his body, he sucks it up and finishes the glass.
“One of then looks like that Math professor. What’s his name?”
“Old crazy Squares?”
“Bingo! That’s the one. Good thing you got him this time.” Quique can’t hide his expression of relief.
“Don’t tell me you were going to feel guilty.”
“It’s just that I like the old guy. What do you think happened to him?”
“He probably died teaching at that high school.”
“Maybe so. But it’s because of him I enrolled in Sergeant School, a couple of equations gave me the exact score.”
“And we got ourselves a super policeman.”
“Knock it off… You got no room to talk. This is all you do.”
He laughs while Quique drowns his badge in his glass of beer. Hasn’t he been doing this too long to still feel ashamed? Who knows; but you have to earn a living somehow. Quique tells him that one of the marks apparently owns several businesses just like the ones owned by the guy who put out the hit.
“And the faggot can’t think of a better way to compete with him? What a bunch of chicken-shit business owners these days…”
“More business for us this way.” Quique reacts, no longer feeling ashamed.
“Whatever, at least it’s not because of some cheating wife bullshit. A man who doesn’t take care of that himself isn’t much of a man. And what about the other guy?”
“So now you wanna know.”
“Knock it off.” He couldn’t resist the curiosity this time. Quique shows a victorious tooth and tells him the rest:
“The other guy’s his brother; this way no one inherits anything right away.”
They agree to meet later. He returns home to polish the piece of hardware. The cat doesn’t make an appearance. He kills time cleaning and putting some other pieces of hardware in order. There aren’t many. The order is impeccable, but even still he continues to organize them. It soothes him. He notices that, in addition to his right hand shaking, the pounding has become faster, and he’s sleeping less and less. Before, these little jobs didn’t bother him, but he’s been dreaming about them for a while now. Especially their eyes. But he doesn’t want to start remembering the jobs, which is why he keeps busy organizing, cleaning, ranking. It’s his only weapon against the chaos of those eyes.
Time passes more quickly than usual. Quique is waiting for him outside on the motorbike. The cat makes an appearance, once again next to the food bowl. You’ll have to wait until I get back.
The minutes spent on the motorcycle cool his extremities, and he senses that they sharpen his aim. His eyes water a bit, but he doesn’t wipe them. Quique’s head offers little protection against the wind, though he drives fast and passes cars with a grace that no one would expect from an overweight cop. All of a sudden, they stop in front of a chicken joint. They both get off the motorcycle. Quique follows him. The front of the restaurant is glass. He’s already located the table where the men are sitting. There are also two children and three women. Two of the women must be their wives. The elderly woman, perhaps the grandmother.
He enters the restaurant and Quique stands in the doorway. His taste buds inevitably react to the smell of the crackling skin. But it doesn’t stop his advance. He raises his arm and aims at the back of the neck of the first one. Clean. He didn’t even know it was coming. The other tries to lunge to one side, but he sees him. The bullet enters his ear, and gravity finishes the job. One of the women looks to her side, her hand pressed against her breast, petrified, her husband’s face buried in his French fries. The other woman has thrown herself in the floor, and her clothes soak up the blood that’s leaving the other body. One of the children cries, “Papa!”
He and Quique are already on the motorbike. He drops him off at home and hands him another envelope with the other half of the money. He’s satisfied with his own precision, but he’s worried about the shaking that’s gotten worse in one of his hands. He still doesn’t know what he will do with the cat and hopes that it won’t wake him up tomorrow with another scratch. Hopefully the chicken joint will make the papers tomorrow.
Translated by George Henson
Claudia Salazar Jiménez is a Peruvian writer and academic. She studied literature at the National University of San Marcos and has a Ph.D. in Latin American Literature from the University of New York (NYU). Her first novel La sangre de la aurora, written from a female perspective on the internal armed conflict in Peru, won the Las Americas Narrative Award in 2014. Her research and publication projects link writings of the self with the politics of memory. She has edited the anthologies Voces para Lilith: Literatura contemporánea de temática lésbica en Latinoamérica, Escribir en Nueva York: Antología de narradores hispanoamericanos, and Pachacuti feminista, which will be published this year.
George Henson is the translator of many of Latin America’s most important writers, including Cervantes laureates Sergio Pitol (The Art of Flight, The Journey, The Magician of Vienna, and Mephisto’s Waltz: Selected Short Stories) and Elena Poniatowska (The Heart of the Artichoke). His translations have appeared in World Literature Today, the Paris Review, Granta, and Two Lines. In addition to serving as an editor-at-large for Latin American Literature Today, he is an assistant professor of Spanish Translation at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey.
The fourth issue of LALT highlights underrepresented but deserving voices from across Latin America, with a focus on women writers as well as special sections dedicated to genre-bending science fiction, indigenous-language poetry and prose, and the essential relationship between author and translator.