A work of fiction.
(Note: This is the longest piece I have ever published on this site. If you want a printable version, I think the best option is to copy and paste the text into word processing software and print it from there.)
The Argentine’s Ice Box
A short story by Michael J. Totten
If you walk into a restaurant named Henry’s and find a man sitting alone at a table who is from anywhere outside the Patagonian desert, you’ll spot him as an outsider even if you’re an outsider yourself. It’s in the eyes, the posture, and the set of the mouth.
So when I opened the door and saw Andre in the corner with his rumpled button-up shirt, scribbling in a notebook under a pair of reading glasses, I knew I had found my companion for the evening. The bartender and other patrons flicked their eyes at me, just long enough to peg me as a foreigner, but quickly enough to show indifference. A man throwing darts by himself sized me up as he threw a bulls eye. But Andre looked at me over his glasses and raised his eyebrows. It was almost like a plea.
“Puedo sentir?” I asked? May I sit?
“Sure,” Andre said.
“Oh, you do speak English,” I said. “I thought you might.”
“I knew you would,” he said. “Your accent is terrible.”
“I’m used to Cuban Spanish,” I said. “I spent three months in Cienfuegos writing a book. I finally got used to the garbled accent, and now I’m ruined everywhere else.”
“Everywhere else, huh? Sounds like you get around. Sit down. Please. The bartender will come over.”
I sat. The chair was made of hard wood but was oddly comfortable, as if it were so old and so used it was polished perfectly to fit the human form. Everything seemed old in this country. I could hardly believe it was Argentina. It looked and felt like a wandering outpost of Europe.
“I’m Neal,” I said, and put out my hand.
“Andre,” he said, and shook my hand limply.
“Quite a place,” I said. “I must admit I’m surprised to find another American here.”
“Everyone here is American,” he said. “This is South America.”
“You know what I mean,” I said. “I’m supposed to say United Statesean? Estoy de los Estados Unidos, I tell the locals. They’re funny that way. They insist they’re Americans, and they insist they’re Europeans. They can’t be both, and I’m not sure they can be either.”
“They’re both,” he said. “I’ve been to every Latin American country except Mexico, and Argentina is by far the most European. Buenos Aires is more European than London.”
“Every country except Mexico?” I said. “Seriously?”
“Yeah,” Andre said, and fidgeted. Then he relaxed and leaned back in his chair, as if to apologize without speaking. “It’s been done to death.”
“More tourists visit Mexico than any other country in the world,” I said.
“Egg-zactly,” he said.
“I don’t think I’ve met anyone who travels as much as you. Except for me. I’m a travel writer. I go everywhere.”
The dart-thrower looked at me over his shoulder. His hair was golden, his eyes blue as submerged ice. He gave me that look I so often get in Eastern Europe, the Balkan Stare that says You aren’t from here, who the hell are you? The quickest way to dispel it is to bellow out loud and ask if anyone speaks English. No one ever answers, but at least they stop staring.
“Hello there,” I said to the dart-thrower. He ignored me and squinted at the board.
Andre wiped his face with his napkin and folded it neatly in his lap.
“Travel writer,” he finally said. “That supposed to be funny?”
“Why would it be funny? It’s my job. I visit remote places in the world, places no one else goes, and write stories and essays about them.”
He twisted up his face. “You’re making fun of me,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I said, and laughed nervously.
He stared at me as the dart-thrower stared, just like the xenophobic Serbs outside of Belgrade.
Then I got it. It clicked.
“You’re a travel writer, too,” I said. “No shit. What are the odds?”
“I was here first,” he said. “You saw me. I was sitting here when you came in.”
“So what?” I said.
“So we can’t both write about it. Only one of us can do this town. Go to Tierra del Fuego.”
“Tierra del Fuego has been done already,” I said. “Lots of people have written about it.”
“Go to Punta Arenas,” he said. “Go to Jujuy. I don’t care. But, you can’t do Esquel.”
Surely he was an amateur. He didn’t understand how the market worked, who the readership was.
“Look,” I said. “No one will know we both wrote about this place. Not until after the stories come out. Even then hardly anyone will read both of them. And if they do, they won’t care. We just divvy up the markets. You send to one half, I send to the other.”
“Now you look,” he said. “I only write about places that no one else has written about. It’s my gig, my angle, my selling point.”
“Well, I do the same damn thing,” I said. “Shit. I’m surprised I haven’t run into you yet. There are only so many places left in the world.”
“What’s your last name?” he said. I told him mine, and he told me his. Neither one of us had ever heard of the other.
“Liar,” he said. “How could you possibly write about a bunch of remote places and I’ve never heard of you?”
The dart-thrower blew out his breath. Everyone in the room could hear us, but I could tell the dart-thrower understood English. He had that look about him. He was attentive but he pretended he was ignoring us.
“Look,” I said. “I read the travel stuff. But I don’t read all of it. It’s not possible. Honestly, I usually just assume no one has written about some place I want to go. You can’t read everything. Let’s just admit that we’re both behind on our homework. For all we know, Paul Theroux already wrote about this place.”
Andre put his head in his hands and moaned.
“What’s the last place you did?” I said. “Before you came here?”
He eyed me like a rat.
“Come on,” I said. “You tell me yours, and I’ll tell you mine.”
The room was cool, even cold, but his forehead glistened with sweat. He wiped his face with his napkin again and then slapped it down on his thigh.
“Northern Iceland,” he said. “I went to Grimsey. I finished the piece last night in my room.”
“I did that one last year,” I said. “Granta runs it next issue.”
Andre banged the table with his fist and flipped his spoon on the floor. Everyone stared. The bartender stopped wiping a glass with a cloth.
“All right, goddamnit,” he said. “Where was the last place you went?”
I wanted to lie to him. Make up some place I was sure he’d already been, just to drive him crazier. I was enjoying this, but I had no idea where he’d been.
“Magadan,” I said. “The old Soviet gulag town.”
He snickered. “I wrote about Magadan three years ago. It was published two years ago.”
Was he lying? He didn’t tell me who published it.
A shadow fell on the table, and I turned and saw the dart-thrower.
“I lived in Antarctica,” the dart-thrower said.
Andre turned his chair and screeched the feet on the floor. “You lived in Antarctica?” he said.
“Yes,” the dart-thrower said. “For three years. I worked at the New Zealand station as a mechanic.”
“My name is Neal,” I said. “This here is Andre.”
Andre gave me a look that smoldered. “We’re not friends,” he said. “We just met.”
“John” the dart-thrower said. “I call myself John.”
His name was John? Or was it Juan?
“Your conversation amuses me,” John said.
“This conversation seems to amuse our friend here, too,” Andre said.
“You Americans are all the same,” John said. “Exactly the same.” I waited for Andre to correct John about his non-inclusive use of the word “Americans.”
“I think that’s what’s got Andre here in a huff,” I said. “He and I are exactly the same.”
Andre wadded up his napkin and threw it at me. He pushed himself away from the table, screeching his chair across the floor again. The bartender gave him the eye. He stormed over to the dart board and pulled out the darts, one angry dart at a time.
“What is huff?” John said. “I do not know that word.”
“He means I’m pissed!” Andre said, and threw his first dart. He missed the board completely, and the dart bounced off the wall. Everyone in the bar laughed.
“You’re drunk?” John said.
“It means I’m angry,” Andre said, and glowered at me some more.
“This is what I mean,” John said. “You are loud. And you have no respect for other people’s countries. That is why you want to go where other Americans don’t go. You hate each other. You meet in my town, and you fight.”
Andre looked at John, then at the darts in his hand. He sat back down quietly and laid the darts on the table in front of him.
“I have lived here most of my life,” John said. “But, I have been many other places, and like I said, I lived in Antarctica.”
“I didn’t think anyone lived in Antarctica,” Andre said. It was his humblest statement of the evening.
“I lived there for three years,” John said. “It is my second home.”
I picked up one of the darts and fiddled with it. The end was surprisingly sharp. I imagined stabbing Andre’s hand with it.
“I made a lot of money,” John said. “I used it to see the world. I went all over America. To Santiago, Rio, Caracas, and New York. I visited London for a week, but I did not like London. So I went to Paris. I like Paris. It looks like Buenos Aires.”
“Actually,” Andre said. “Buenos Aires looks like Paris.”
“That’s what I said,” John said.
“No,” Andre said. “You said Paris looks like Buenos Aires.”
“What is the difference?” John said.
“Paris is older,” Andre said. “It was there first.”
I snickered. Andre was predictable already.
“But I saw Buenos Aires first,” John said.
Andre rolled his eyes.
“What was Antarctica like?” I said.
“It is very beautiful,” John said. “Like other world. The viento, the wind, it is angry and always blows. The mountains move.”
“What do you mean, the mountains move?” Andre said. I wanted to smack him.
“The mountains over the horizon sometimes reflect like a mirror off the ice crystals in the sky. One day you see the reflection of a mountain range a thousand kilometers away. The next day the wind blows the frozen air away and the mountains are gone. It was confusing to old mapmakers.”
I had never heard anything like that, and wondered if John was making it up.
“I went to the South Pole,” John said. “Everyone at the research station goes in February when the sun always shines and it is not so cold.”
“Really,” Andre said. “What was that like?” It was the first time Andre showed actual curiosity about anything.
I, too, was curious. I had never met anyone who had been to the South Pole. And though there were many books written about the place by all the great explorers, I never read them.
“It is very high,” John said. “Many kilometers above the level of the sea. It is on a high plain, and when you fly to the pole, the ground rises up to meet you, and the plane does not need to descend in order to land.”
I didn’t know about this either, but I liked it. May the road rise up to meet you, as the Irish like to say. And the pole was high, which made it even farther away from every other place in the world.
“It is colder than the North Pole because it is so high,” John said.
I decided to plan a trip there. I had no idea how I would go, but I liked the idea of the challenge.
“Hey, Andre,” I said. “Wanna go the pole with me?”
He flicked his eyes at me and didn’t say a word. I wondered if he would have been as interested if I had gone instead of John.
“We did not stay long at the pole,” John said. “It was too cold. We were there for maybe one hour. We wore vacuum-sealed boots to keep our feet from freezing.”
“It must have been something,” I said, and felt lame for not thinking of anything better to say.
“The New Zealanders took pictures of themselves in front of the flag as…how do you say…souvenirs,” John said. “I took a piece of ice with me instead.”
“How long did the ice last?” Andre said.
“Oh, I still have the ice,” John said.
“Really!” Andre said, and stood up. I saw what looked like a ketchup stain on his shirt.
“That must have been hard,” I said. “Bringing it back and keeping it from melting.”
“It is in my kitchen, in the ice box,” John said.
“Wow!” Andre said, and started pacing around the table. He walked up behind John. “John, my man,” he said and started rubbing John’s shoulders. “How old is that ice?”
I could see where this was going and I refused to let him beat me.
“Hey, John,” I said. “Any way we could take a look at that ice?” Andre may have beaten me to Esquel, but I wasn’t going to let him beat me to the pole ice.
“No one has seen the ice but me,” John said. “I never told anyone about it before. I brought it back for myself, not to show off.”
“Excellent,” Andre said. “We can be the first to see it. You don’t have to be embarrassed about showing it off in front of us.”
John flinched. “No,” he said. “I’m sorry. I should not have told you about it.”
“John,” I said. “Thank you for telling us. It is a gift to share travel stories.”
“I did not travel there,” John said. “I just went. I worked there and lived there. I was not a tourist.”
Andre read my mind. “We’re not tourists, either,” he said. “We’re travelers.”
“It is the same thing,” John said.
“No, it’s not,” Andre said.
“Don’t go there, Andre,” I said. “You know how stupid people sound when they go on about that. And right now it will sound twice as stupid as it usually does.”
“When Americans travel, they always take pictures,” John said. “The Japanese are even worse.”
“I don’t take pictures,” Andre said.
“You take different kinds of pictures,” John said. “Pictures with words. Those stories you write.”
Great, I thought. John here is a book-hater.
“I’m a writer,” Andre said. “What do you expect?”
“There are Indians in Brazil,” John said, “in the Amazon rainforest. They will not let you take their picture. They believe pictures steal their souls.”
“That’s stupid,” Andre said.
“But, John,” I said. “What about your ice? How is that any different?”
“It is not the same,” John said.
“Why not?” Andre said.
“Look,” John said. “When I went to Antarctica, I brought an Argentine plant with me, a plant from Patagonia. I brought it to remind me of home. And after a while, Antarctica became more familiar to me than Argentina. The ice became the world. Argentina became a strange warm place where things grow. So, when I left for Argentina, I brought the ice to remind me, the same way I brought the plant with me to Antarctica remind me of my home in Esquel. The ice in my freezer is my Antarctic plant.”
“Let me see it,” Andre said. “I’ll pay you. I’ll pay you more if you let me lick it.”
“I am going home,” John said. “I should not have told you about my ice. Please, I am asking you, do not put me in one of your stories.”
He collected his darts, placed them neatly into a black leather case, paid the bartender, and left.
Andre and I were left to ourselves, to each other. Hell, Sartre said, is other people. He looked at me, tapped his fingers on the tabletop, and said nothing. I could hear him breathing. I wanted him to wipe the ketchup stain off his shirt. The evening was impossible now.
He got up, cleared his mug and his plate from the table, and banged them down on the bar. He fished into his pockets and gave the bartender a wad of pesos. He went out and slammed the wooden door behind him. I felt goose bumps on my arms from the whoosh of cold air outside.
I wanted to throw darts, but John had taken his and I didn’t want to ask the bartender for the house darts. The bartender never asked me if I wanted a drink, never acknowledged my existence, and so I figured to hell with it.
I walked outside into the night. The air smelled of snow and juniper berries. Esquel was a small town, and no one lived far from anyone else. I saw John turn into a house two blocks up a side street in front of the bar. I looked up, and above John’s house I saw the Southern Cross in a sky full of unfamiliar stars.
I checked into the hotel next to Henry’s and asked for a room facing the street. When I got to the room, I pulled open the curtains and peered out the window. I could see John’s house. It was right there up the street in front of me. The front door was obscured by two trees in the yard, but I could clearly see the roof and the driveway. He wouldn’t be able to leave without me seeing him as long as I staked out his house in the morning.
I went downstairs and bought cigarettes from the clerk. Back upstairs, I lit one and laid on the bed to stare at the ceiling. The white paint was cracked. Argentine spiders huddled in the corners.
I had never broken into a house before. I wasn’t proud of everything I did in other people’s countries. I paid a panhandler to take off her burka in Pakistan, sneaked into a derelict air force base in Russia, and once begged a woman in Thailand. But this was different. And it had nothing to do with digging around for story material. I could never write about creeping a local’s house.
If I wanted to write about the ice, all I had to do was lie. But I knew if I were to write about the Argentine’s ice box, I would have to hide the truth, not embellish it. I was about to cross a line. A dangerous moral and ethical line. It had something to do with Andre. And it had everything to do with me.
I moved to the window, lit another cigarette, and watched.
I woke with light on my face. I had no idea what time it was, but I was sure I has slept too long. I ran to the sink, splashed cold water on my face, and went to the window.
I would have assaulted a local for French Toast and hash browns. But I had a house to watch, and food was a luxury. So I lit a cigarette to curb my breakfast cravings. The cigarette was awful, but the nicotine rush washed over me and calmed down my stomach.
Then he came out. I saw him between the trees. He climbed in his car, some two-door Euro model, and backed it out of the driveway. He turned the car toward the hotel. I hid my face behind the curtains, though I knew he couldn’t see me. He drove past and headed out of the city. I went out, toward the house, and hoped he lived alone. It was only two blocks away.
The house was simple, but welcoming. It was an ordinary square house, like a plastic Monopoly board piece. The roof was cherry red, the walls blue, the trim bright yellow. It reminded me of Iceland. I liked that the houses at the bottom of the world were much like those at the top. It almost made me feel good. I looked both ways down the street and saw that no one was coming. I went to the door and knocked.
If anyone answered, all I had to do was act surprised. Lo siento, I’d say. I’m sorry. I thought Fulgencio lived here.
There was no answer, and I heard no sound. So I turned the knob and the door opened. There probably wasn’t a locked door in town. What could the crime rate be in a place like this, in a lonely Spanish outpost at the ends of the earth?
The kitchen was at the back of the house, and I could see the sink from the doorway. Dishes were piled up, and the floor glistened with water. John was surely a bachelor. But he had a Victorian couch in the living room, and an old-world coffee table with a swirled marble top. I couldn’t tell which country the table came from, but it was surely from somewhere in Europe. A woman lived there once, if she doesn’t still live there today.
“Hola,” I said to be safe. The house was quiet and still.
I went into the kitchen and looked for a way around the puddle on the floor. I had no choice but to walk through it. The water covered the floor all the way to the icebox.
The ice box was unplugged, and the cord was coiled in water. The door was wide open, and water dripped onto the floor.
Somewhere, I suppose, in the back of my thoughts, I expected this. I knew that Andre and I ruined the ice. And somehow I knew, I just knew, that John was going to do this.
Did I break into his kitchen so that I could see his ice, so I could run my finger along its side, so I could lick it and taste the water from the bottom of the world? Or did I go to ensure that he’d finished it? So I’d know it would always be his. So I could live with myself.
I wasn’t sure at that moment why I was there. But I can honestly say I knew precisely what would happen in the next second.
The front door swung open. Andre’s hunched form filled the doorway. He wasn’t surprised to see me.
“Did you find it?” he said. “How big is it?”
He came forward, not glancing once at the handsome couch or the marble table which I was at that moment quite sure came from France.
I hated Andre and his rude, barging ways. But he was just like me, and I knew that, too. I knew it better than Andre, who hated me, but for all the wrong reasons.
Andre couldn’t stand the competition. He saw in me what he liked about himself. What I saw in Andre I despised.
“Yeah,” I said. “I found it. It’s yours now.”
I walked past him toward the door, which he’d left standing open.
“Well?” he said, surprised to see me leaving so soon.
“Well, what?” I said. “See for yourself. And shut the door on your way out.”
I closed the door gently behind me, and could only imagine the look on his face.