Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Minotaurs on Holiday

Paul Mihas
From Prairie Schooner, Vol. 86, No. 1 (Spring 2012)

Florentina had grown up in Buenos Aires but had come here, to the world’s bottom, the southernmost city in the world, at the beckoning of a man who ran stables and owned a horse named Picasso. Don Julio took tourists and huasos for week-long treks on horseback and came back dead silent and in need of a bath.

When Florentina heard the slip and glide of someone in the bathtub, she imagined her husband had returned early, but as the door to the bathroom creaked open, she saw her son, Mauro, kneeling before the tub and attempting to hold still a wet dog that shivered inside pink suds. Mauro looked over his shoulder. His eyes, the color of syrup, told the story. He reached into the shallow depths as the dog scratched at the slippery sides.

‘‘Mauro?’’

‘‘I found a dog.’’

She rolled up her sleeves and grabbed a towel. ‘‘Tell me everything. Go on.’’ She surveyed the bathroom to see what damage had been done. A leash hung from the towel rack.

‘‘It was on the street, just running back and forth. I brought him home. He was pink, but now—’’

They both looked at the crimson water in the tub.

‘‘Somebody dyed him?’’

She laid out the towel and together they lifted the lean dog out of the tub. Water spilled onto her shoes. Mauro got on top of the toilet seat and looked down at the dog. From an early age Mauro drew maps of places he had never been, maps of Antarctica and Paraguay and Chile, always from a bird’s-eye view.

‘‘He’s drawing with the eyes of a pilot,’’ his father had said.

Yes, Florentina had grabbed him by the chin and looked into his face. ‘‘He has God’s eyes.’’

While the dog whimpered in the bathroom, Florentina scrambled to find a newspaper—as if lost dogs would make the news—and found only reports of beaver infestation in the flag-tree woods and a drug from the city that had hit their streets, paco, a garbage drug made of cocaine, kerosene, and baking powder. She turned back to page one and read about a drag queen beaten and left to die on Quinip Street, the little road that smelled like paprika and empanada dough. The victim was described as large hipped, a man who wore high heels made of transparent plastic, with fake goldfish inside the heel. She, or he, had been suffocated. The killer remained unknown.

Florentina was a woman who lived in lowercase letters. The drag queen had managed to die in all caps.

Here, in Ushuaia, the lines of longitude collected like the inner spokes of a wheel. Tierra del Fuego, they called it, the land of fire. But a gaucho tour guide hiking the hills and taking in the thousand shades of gray, like one villa miseria on top of the other, would unearth the masquerade. The fire was within them, within the drag queen who put fire on her lips and within the killer who put that flame out. Florentina turned the page to the police blotter and read about the motorcycle riders who had driven here for a biker party on the pier. As a girl growing up in Buenos Aires, Florentina had grown to be afraid of men in groups, had later striven to keep Mauro, now fourteen, off soccer teams and away from the throng of boys at the makeshift flea markets. The defunct prison had once housed the worst of these savages. The bottom of the world, by all accounts safe, would set you on fire any chance it got.

With her hand on the leash, the dog sniffing a calefate bush, Florentina started down the hill along a row of gray and blue cottages. Mauro, hands in perpetual motion, recited facts from the weather almanac. Florentina broke his reportage. ‘‘We need to take the dog back where you found it. You understand?’’ Near downtown, on a concrete wall painted turquoise, swirls of anti-American graffiti named presidents and generals. Florentina and Mauro weaved around cars that were dusty following the snowmelt, Mauro’s hands still moving. On the other side of the border, he said, in Chile, were whole towns where it snowed three hundred and fifty days a year, feeding the iceberg at Moreno. He grew quiet when they got to Ocampo Street, his hands now in his pockets. A bicycle was posed upside down, in repair mode. Birds flitted on pavement; stripes of sun rested on car windows as three muscled boys tossed looks at girls walking by, the girls unleashing hair from ribbons and ponytails; old men wandered home after a card game at the café, disappearing up the hill, rising toward the red roofs in the sky.

The three boys in jeans padded across the street in tennis shoes, the one with floppy hair leading the pack. They moved with the same beat, the same swagger as if one gland governed them all.

‘‘Hooligans,’’ Florentina said. ‘‘See how big you will look in a few years?’’

The boys, perhaps sixteen, began throwing rocks against a trash bin, looking over at Mauro and the dog, and then ran, almost vanishing in seconds, down a street lined with trees that looked like giant asparagus. Their shadows merged on the ground into a canvas of monstrous limbs and legs.

The dog yanked forward on the leash. Mauro grabbed Florentina’s sleeve and pulled her down the street, past taquerias and a hair salon.

Mauro looked at his reflection in the taqueria window. ‘‘My eyes are dark, aren’t they?’’

‘‘Yes,’’ she said.

He fixed the collar of his linen shirt as teenage girls wearing school uniforms walked by and stared. It seemed as if they had discovered his beauty at the very moment it had passed into his own care. They wanted his butter-smooth skin, his chestnut hair. Ask them as they stare at his slender hips, and they will tell you.

A woman sitting on the stairs put aside a package of alfafores.

‘‘Sigilo!’’ The woman’s eyes filled with tears as she knelt to pet the dog. ‘‘Where did you find him?’’

She yelled at two hairdressers who stood in the open doorway. ‘‘Go find Octavia.’’

‘‘Poor Paolo,’’ one of them said. ‘‘His dog outlived him.’’

‘‘Who was he?’’ Florentina said. ‘‘My son found his dog.’’

Octavia emerged from between the hairdressers as if she were parting a curtain. House keys swung from her fingers like worry beads. She was the landlady, she said, and told them of the drag queen who had worked by day at the factory that made washing machines. She told them stories of clogged sinks and perfume floating through the vents. Then she talked of cops barging into the apartment after the murder, bewildered by the smell of incense and nail polish remover.

‘‘Do you know what it takes to become a woman?’’ Octavia shook her head of curls. ‘‘It’s like learning the tango. You have to relearn your body. It’s not natural to dress like a woman, even if you are a woman.’’

Mauro stared at the sidewalk as the language, like a thimble rolling under a dresser, moved beyond his grasp.

Stories of the drag queen swept into the Casa Grande, the hotel with the clock tower where Florentina worked. It was the radio and the television and the gossip in the hotel that allowed her to piece together the life of Paolo Copian, the man who had regularly transformed himself into Kilometra Cera, a woman with a piled-high wig that reached chandeliers. Kilometra left the factory on her day off and ate fried plantains at the pier at the fin del mundo to watch the roil of tourists when summer remembered to come. Some talked of her in green velvet that reached her ankles, lavender eye shadow, and a fake beauty spot. Others pulled their chairs closer and summoned memories of her genie outfit with earrings that resembled Persian bottles.

Florentina grabbed hold of gossip as she took a break from yelling at the sheep in the flower garden. A tour guide with streaked hair and an iPod tethered to his ears clapped his hands to summon forth tourists as the old world slipped away. The hills surrounding them were gray and covered with snow. Cargo ships came all year, some of them red, with metallic structures like wishbones growing out of them. The cruise ships, filled with Germans who wore pleated shorts, had left for the season. Today flight attendants had arrived. They wore matching blue and brown outfits and pulled suitcases on wheels.

One of them stared out the window in the direction of Antarctica. There was always one of them who did just this, who stared south; girls such as flight attendants who are not tied down end up frittering away time down here. Antarctica, so close, casts a shadow in stories, stories of bilingual scholars who ended up on a continent with no languages, stories of fractured ice that cracks like a spine beneath your feet. Yes, the flight attendant dreams and the universe dreams through her dreams, through Antarctica’s frozen heartbeat. Florentina set a submarino before her.

‘‘Have you heard about the murder?’’

‘‘Here? You are kidding.’’

Florentina wanted to break the spell, tell the flight attendant girl about climbers’ battered hands, men who’ve died here falling from stallions or drowning in streams more underhanded than the Rio de la Plata. But the girl stared out the window at the saucershaped clouds, perhaps dreaming of the obelisks of Patagonia and the tall wooden ships of yore, the land of smoke and ice from tour books. Florentina tried to tell her that Ushuaia was where they had once sent the dirty rapists and hardscrabble killers.

‘‘We’re going to see the penguins. It’s our day off,’’ the flight attendant said. Single women hide behind the masquerade of ‘‘we’’ and ‘‘our.’’ ‘‘Penguins are monogamous,’’ she added, and pushed her glasses against the bridge of her nose.

Flight attendants are not, Florentina thought. The girl played with the chocolate bar in her submarino, staring evermore south.

Back home, at night, Florentina heard Mauro sighing in his bedroom. She walked into his room and sat in an armchair, then placed her fingers on his forehead. Outside birds cawed. She let her arm drop, then rested her head on a llama blanket. The dog lay curled on the cool stone floor.

As he slipped out of bed, sheets began pouring off it. Florentina reached out and grabbed his arm.

‘‘Something’s happened.’’

He shook his head. ‘‘I have to pee.’’

‘‘I don’t have all day.’’

He began reciting his geography lesson. ‘‘The ice of Antarctica is a thousand feet deep and could fill the River Jordan for a thousand years.’’

‘‘Mauro.’’

‘‘It’s bigger than the Titanic. It’s bigger than the country that made the Titanic. It’s bigger—’’

‘‘Stop it.’’

‘‘I want to keep him.’’ The dog stared blankly at them.

She rubbed his arm. ‘‘He already has a home somewhere.’’

He scowled at her, but even then he looked like a young film star, his lips the color of a lollipop.

Florentina lingered on the bottom step of the Tante Sofia café above which Paolo had lived. The dog panted. She climbed the wooden stairs and knocked on the yellow door, noticed the brushstrokes of what seemed to be a recent paint job. She opened the door halfway and caught a sliver of kiwi-colored pillows and a hanging leafy plant. The dog ran inside onto the geometrically patterned carpeting that curled up at the edges. She slipped inside and let herself witness the poor man’s absence, the smell of a dog and cologne. In the bedroom clothes hung from an exposed curtain rod that ran wall to wall, some of them floating in the breeze from the open window—periwinkle scarves and flouncy hosiery. Maroon sheets gathered in clumps on one side of the bed. A tiara with pointy flames hung on a bed post. Shiny magazines, some still wrapped in rubber bands, lay on the end table. Florentina stepped over men’s loafers and women’s heels to flip on the light switch, the plates adorned with Madonna as Evita. On a mirror were lip prints and bits of toothpaste. He had kissed himself goodbye, not knowing
that this curious hideaway would be examined by a woman who looked like a china in a frumpy skirt.

She began having conversations with the empty room that was Paolo. She wondered what freedom came to him here at the bottom of the world’s funnel. At first, Florentina would claim that she needed to give the dog some calm. But after the third and fourth visits, as Mauro drifted into deeper depression in their own home, she had brought a spare change of clothes, an extra sweater for Mauro, and black bush daisies to replace those that had died on the kitchen counter. She threw away a plate of shriveled crudités. Then the overnight stays began, and breakfast in the nook they shared with dying snapdragons and lupines. This is how a stranger’s apartment claimed her without her fully knowing it, by tricking her with candles hanging from the ceiling and streamers that wrapped fire extinguishers. Others whispered of her trespassing, but it was the apartment that had tricked its way into her. If she found no sign of Mauro at her house after her hotel shift, she grabbed some plantains and walked the twenty minutes to Paolo’s flat. There, Mauro would be circling the rug of Paolo’s place, their new home, flying paper airplanes made of the very newspaper that told of the poor man’s fate. Florentina would set up shop in the kitchen, as if it were her own, and begin heating a frying pan for the tortillas. The first time the phone rang, late in the evening, when Mauro was in bed soaring over the southern hemisphere in his dreams, Florentina picked up the ringing phone and heard nothing. ‘‘Hello?’’ Calls like these had come years ago, during the dirty war, when, still in Buenos Aires, she had hidden in the bathroom and wrapped a towel around her head. This time, she simply put the receiver on a pillow and started rinsing the cilantro bits off the dinner dishes.

In two weeks’ time their overnight stays at Paolo’s place turned into everyday holidays, during which dusting seemed unnecessary and Tanguito’s songs—some of them Elvis Presley’s—boomed out of an old-style record player. Florentina told the women at the taqueria that they did it for the dog, skittish and orphaned—Sigilo was like a brass key to this otherworld—but in truth Florentina was transfixed by the remnants of the dead man’s life around her—his British mystery novels, the ornate mirrors, the wine-colored curtains that grew tumid in the breeze. The old typewriter that served as a planter, leaves sprouting out of the mechanical innards. Still, the apartment that had become her playground had, for Mauro, turned into a drug that turned him perpetually crazed. He read and reread messages on the backs of photographs and found trinkets in the backs of drawers. He would lie prostrate on the mattress, a wounded tern whose flight had come to an end. Sometimes he turned up the volume on the record player, attempting to replace his own melancholy with Los Visitantes.

The next time the phone rang, late in the evening, Florentina picked it up and heard, once again, silence. She grabbed a book from the shelf, 1001 Arabian Nights, and started reading from page one. Then, suddenly, a dial tone. The next night, she read for ten minutes from the same book before the line went dead. The night after that one, a half hour. Since Don Julio was out of town, it was almost a comfort to have Paolo’s mute mother or a former lover waiting for Florentina at bedtime. Or a lonely bill collector or magazine company employee. Together she and the quiet caller learned about the Arabian nights, of squandered wishes to genies and blind men punished by royalty. One night Florentina opened Paolo’s closet and took out a flimsy hanger on which hung scarves. She removed her plain jeans and top and tried on a flouncy Persian gown and wrapped a scarf with metallic fringe around her head. Scheherazade from the book cover.

‘‘Who is that who calls here, mama?’’ Mauro watched her bunch up the waist beneath a woven belt.

She shrugged. ‘‘I’ve never known such a good listener.’’

‘‘When is papa coming home?’’

‘‘When the Americans have sore legs and are sick of horses named Peron.’’

At school the teachers took Mauro’s class to canoe the Beagle Channel. Children in sandals walked over thousands of purple mussel shells and dipped their canoes into Darwin’s water. Mauro, in a canoe with two girls, paddled in front but his arms grew tired. The girls behind him dipped their paddles in the still water with no apparent strategy, despite the lesson their teacher had just given them. Mauro could see the shore where they were headed—it was
blue-gray with stands of lean trees—but had to stop and let his shoulders rest. Girls in a canoe had light voices, but their bodies, heavy as sandbags, told a different tale.

Once on shore, Mauro squatted and rested. The other boys—Quintin, Clemente, and Carlos—eased closer to him, as they had the night of the killing. Now, he and the beasts disguised as boys ran toward a creek and peeked over the edge of a beaver dam. Together, one boy breathing on the other, they turned into a collective monster unleashed from his cage, bent on destroying whatever seemed to blossom. Mauro, in their midst, seemed to grow longer legs and flew into the wildness they brought forth, though for a moment he held onto the history lesson that had occupied him that morning. In the rivers that ran through Tierra del Fuego, beavers brought down from Canada a generation ago destroyed hundreds—no, thousands—of stands of trees along the banks. The former forest, now vacant space, had become just stumps of trees in sunlight. Beavers lived to be over thirty, older than drag queens or guanacos. Beavers, middle-aged monsters with no natural predators, ruled the night, multiplied by the tens of thousands, lived their long lives and slept during the day when boys like them hiked through their territory, spotting their teeth marks on what was left of eucalyptus trees.

Later, when they had been deposited at the bus stop where the day had begun, the boys called to him. ‘‘Pretty boy, get over here.’’ He moved his body with some reluctance, and gone was the history lesson. They leaned against a motorboat that one of their dads used for his tourist business. He eyed them and they lassoed him in with the memory that they all shared. Together they descended into the insides of the boat, and the oldest one, Quintin, convinced them to take the boat out into the bay. They motored out to the stillness, then, after nearly a half hour they cruised past a huge rock upon which sea lions sat motionless in the sun. Above them the sky was April, a white lukewarm haze. As the floppy-haired boy steered the boat, the others talked of sailors who had found a brontosaurus preserved in a glacier. They had it salted, packed in barrels, and sent to a museum, but it went rotten on its voyage through the tropics. One boy dug into his pocket and revealed the coarse reddish hair of a mylodon. ‘‘It’s from a giant sloth.’’ He laughed. ‘‘It died ten thousand years ago.’’

An island in the near distance seemed to rise out of the green and gray of the water’s depth, a mound where penguins wandered in their black mystery. The boys edged to one side of the boat, Mauro silent. The penguins wobbled, perhaps oblivious to the sound of the engine. In pairs and teams they hobbled into a sprinkling of sunlight. The motor slowed down and the boys stumbled forward and caught their balance. One by one, Quintin, Clemente, and Carlos slipped onto the top of the boat and jumped onto the shore, soles hitting shells, sounding like a bucket of fallen trinkets. A penguin stumbled forward, while others chased each other across flattened sand. The breeze blew bangs across Mauro’s face while the boys blinked at him. The oldest one, Quintin, unwrapped the paper that contained the paco and tabacazo cigarette. Together, they sat in a circle and passed the paco cigarette in silence, a merry-go-round of forearms, a monster with four mouths exhaling smoke one after the other. Each boy on his own was just a child with dark eyes, as afraid of drowning as he was intent on impressing the world with his breast stroke. Mauro sighed after just one hit, looked straight ahead. The sky turned grayer and grayer. After the paco had worked its way inside the accordion tissue in their brains, one of them laughed with a manufactured joy. A bird dug its beak furiously into the sand.

‘‘Have you said anything?’’ Quintin, arms on his hips, spat at the ground.

It was the question Mauro had been waiting for.

‘‘No.’’

‘‘Prove it.’’

‘‘No one knows.’’ Mauro’s voice broke in a quiver.

‘‘Really?’’

One by one, the three boys climbed into the boat, the penguins moving away from the tinny sound of tennis shoes on metal. They whispered to each other and laughed. The engine started. Mauro, arms outstretched, ribcage showing, began yelling as the boat motored away. The magic of the paco was gone, as it had left them that night.

‘‘Where the hell are you going?’’

‘‘Promise not to tell, and we’ll come back.’’ That was Clemente.

Mauro ran to the water’s edge. ‘‘Come back! I promise. Goddammit.’’

The penguins, coats glistening, waddled and honked. He had never been so close to one before. He brushed black sand from his elbows and waited for the sun’s unpredictable love as the slop and hush of waves lapped steadily closer.

As a girl, Florentina had ridden her bike from one cemetery to the next to see famous tombs, such as Eva Peron’s, and, when on rocky terrain, got off the bike and walked it beside her. But the corpses of the dirty war had no gravestones; no matter where their kin looked, they would find only stories unattached to earth. Only llamas and penguins, pink scurvy grass, a shut-down prison, dinosaur graveyards, and a fog horn that sounded like a vibrating cell phone. A pink dog whose coat turns to white when it surfaces from a bubble bath, and now a television screen that tallies the U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq and the Iraqi civilians killed, one number floating atop the other, a lesson in fractions. The Beagle Channel where Florentina’s only son has disappeared. A rainbow shower curtain and a llama-skin rug, a bathroom where a drag queen used to duct-tape away her penis. A silent caller who phones every night at midnight, a man to whom Florentina inexplicably reads the Arabian nights, stories she has never read before. There is a husband who doesn’t call, a man galloping across the hills of Ushuaia on a horse named Picasso. Here, Ushuaia, is where God rewinds the tape and seems to start over. But Florentina could still see the men from the war, the dirty war, thrown without parachutes out of airplanes and flying for a moment with eyes closed, perhaps opening their eyelids for a moment—drawing their last map before the cold and air turned them into vapor, into sky mist that would fall on yellow calceolarias, purple vetches, and pinky-white cactus flowers the color of a drag queen’s dog. Here, at the tip of Argentina, she must hang on as the earth spins.

Florentina stood before the house of one of the hooligans. His last name and address was written on the back of a recipe for pineapple upside-down cake. She knocked on the door and waited for a man to open it. He wore a gray shirt and wiped salsa on his chin.

‘‘My son is missing.’’ She wore the Arabian gown, had left the apartment in a panic.

‘‘I’m sorry?’’

‘‘Your son was seen with my son, who’s out somewhere. It’s late. And I’m afraid for him.’’

Behind him, down the hallway, she spotted the boy watching television.

‘‘Him.’’ She pointed. ‘‘I need him.’’

‘‘Quintin? Someone is here.’’ The father stifled a yawn.

She removed floral scarves from around her neck and shoved them inside her canvas bag. The boy awkwardly shielded his eyes with his hand.

‘‘Where is Mauro?’’

He shrugged.

‘‘You have to tell me or else—’’

‘‘What is going on here?’’ The father stared at his son.

‘‘Don’t know.’’

‘‘I know what you did.’’ Florentina held a bracelet on her wrist to keep it from shaking.

The boy looked up at her, the breath audibly leaving his body. He shook his head.

‘‘You brute.’’

‘‘I—’’

‘‘Beating that man—’’

‘‘What is this crazy woman saying?’’ The father shot glances at each of them.

‘‘Tell him!’’

‘‘Did you take out the boat again?’’ The father slapped him across the face, and the boy’s elbow cracked against the wall.

‘‘He suffocated her!’’ The boy’s eyebrows rose.

‘‘Who did?’’

‘‘Mauro!’’ His breathing was shallow, his nostrils growing wide. ‘‘Mauro.’’

‘‘He did not!’’

‘‘He was high.’’

‘‘Jesus Christ.’’

‘‘Where is he?’’

Mauro can see it all now, as if from above, a cameraman’s lucky angle. Encouraged always to be alone, he was now not alone. They are still with him, inside his eyelids, images of boys taunting the drag queen, knocking her to the pavement. In his drugged euphoria, Quintin had pulled off the wig of blonde curls. Then came ripped hosiery and blood pouring from a cut in her knee. They had trouble holding her down, but when they had her—the man masquerading as a woman—flattened against the concrete, Mauro could see the bulge in the lady’s panties. The lady squirmed and grunted. Clemente had kneeled on her chest, his hair flopping over one eye, and instructed Mauro to cup a hand over her mouth so that she would not budge or let out a sound. Later, he would rub off the lipstick print smeared on the palm of his hand.

These were the details Florentina attempted to knit together as she pressed her face against the rainbow pillow, waiting for the phone to ring, as she had been instructed. She imagined the drag queen’s warm breath stopping suddenly, the lungs silenced by the crush of young hands that had yet to hold a gun or a fresh baby. And the pink dog caught in the light of a single street bulb, running with a leash trailing behind on the asphalt and grit. If she and Mauro could compare their visions, they could correct each other. No, the dog ran the other way, retrieved days later. Yes, the plastic heel broke.

As coast guard roamed the waters, the dog licked her forearm and would not stop. She heard a toddler crying and someone practicing a flute next door. She played with the lipstick cap on the coffee table.

The thud at the door sounded feral. A knock? She stood and opened the door. Don Julio, blinking, stood before her.

‘‘Mi querido!’’ Her jaw dropped and she remembered that she was not a gaucho widow after all. That is just what people called her. She inched closer, pressed herself into his chest, closed her eyes and imagined she felt the earth move beneath horses’ hooves. She kissed him, then stepped away. She did not ask how he found her.

His eyes took in her eye shadow, her flouncy dress, the cherryshaped earrings.

‘‘What are you doing here?’’ he said.

Her eyes followed his, surveying a place that had become hers alone—the film poster of Sophia Loren, the cuckoo clock, a snapshot of Paolo in fake prison garb. The indoors must have seemed small when coming in from the wilderness.

‘‘So much has happened.’’

‘‘What?’’ He had lipstick on his mouth. She reached up and rubbed the color along his chapped upper lip, making him look like a tired clown.

He turned his head. ‘‘Get that shit off me.’’ Tears started to roll down the creases in his face. ‘‘I’m trying to talk.’’ He stared at her with cold love. ‘‘Look at you. What are you wearing?’’

‘‘What are you wearing?’’ She perused his denim shirt and the jaguar-shaped belt buckle, the costume it took to be a man. ‘‘Mauro’s in trouble,’’ she whispered.

‘‘Oh?’’ He sounded wounded, as if pigeons should have informed him of tragedy as soon as it happened.

She stepped back and prepared to tell him that their boy was missing, that in the time Don Julio was away, their Mauro had grown an inch and taken up with hooligans in the crawl space of the southern hemisphere, minotaurs loose from the basement of the Americas, that the days that smelled like saddles and bonfires were over.