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The Generation of Fear

Snippet from

The Sound of Things Falling  

- Juan Gabriel Vásquez

Crime Drama

Context: This snippet explores how crime affects those who are not directly involved in it, but forced to live in areas where crime is rampant. Antonio befriends and is intrigued by the life of an ex-con, Ricardo Laverde. One night, they are both shot at. The shooting was intended to kill Ricardo. Ricardo dies and Antonio is left in dire circumstances.


I liked playing pool. There was a pool hall that I went to frequently. Though I enjoyed the game, I was getting more and more intrigued by the people I was surrounded by. I met Ricardo Laverde. He was a mysterious man. He wore elaborate clothes and jewelry. He was pretty good at pool too. He told me stories about his possessions. About coats that were gifted by politicians. About shoes and watches gifted by friends from the US. I was fascinated by his tales and his way of life and though I reserved calling him a friend, we did get closer. One night, after playing pool, I was following him to his house where he was going to show me his cassette collection. He was pacing quickly down the street with me in close pursuit. As we moved around a turn, a motorbike descended from the curb and I remember hearing gunshots followed by instant pain and then blackness.

I know, although I don’t remember, that the bullet passed through my gut without touching any organs but burning nerves and tendons and finally lodging itself in my hip bone a few inches from my spinal column. I know I lost a lot of blood and that, in spite of the supposed universality of my blood type, the stocks of it were low in the San José Hospital at the time, or its demand on the part of Bogotá’s afflicted society was too high, and my father and my sister had to donate some to save my life. I know I was lucky. Everyone told me so as soon as it was possible, and besides, I know, I know in an instinctive way. The notion of my luck, this I remember, was one of the first manifestations of my recovered consciousness. I don’t remember, however, the three days of surgery: they have disappeared completely, obliterated by the intermittent anaesthesia. I don’t remember the hallucinations, but I do remember that I had them; I don’t remember having fallen out of bed due to the abrupt movements that one of them provoked, and, although I don’t remember that they tied me down in the bed to prevent that from happening again, I do remember quite well the violent claustrophobia, the terrible awareness of my vulnerability. I remember the fever, the sweat that soaked my whole body at night and obliged the nurses to change the sheets, the damage I did to my throat and the corners of my very dry lips when I tried to yank out the respirator tube; I remember the sound of my own voice when I screamed and I know, although I don’t remember this either, that my screams disturbed the rest of the patients on the floor. The patients or their relatives complained, the nurses ended up moving me to another room, and in this new room, during a brief moment of lucidity, I asked about Ricardo Laverde and found out (I don’t remember from whom) that he had died. I don’t think I felt sad, or maybe I’m confusing, and always confused, the sadness at the news with the tears produced by pain, and anyway I know that there, busy as I was with the task of surviving, seeing the gravity of my own situation in the tattered expressions of those around me, I couldn’t have thought much about the dead man. I don’t remember, in any case, having blamed him for what had happened to me.

I did later. I cursed Ricardo Laverde, cursed the moment we met, and didn’t for a second even consider that Laverde might not have been directly responsible for my misfortune. I was glad he’d died: I hoped, as compensation for my own pain, that he’d had a painful death. Between the mists of my faltering consciousness I responded in monosyllables to my parents’ questions. You met him at the billiard club? Yes. You never knew what he did, if he was up to something fishy? No. Why was he killed? Don’t know. Why was he killed, Antonio? I don’t know, I don’t know. Antonio, why was he killed? I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know. The question was repeated insistently and my answer was always the same, and it soon became obvious that the question didn’t require an answer: it was more like a lament. The same night Ricardo Laverde was gunned down another sixteen murders were committed in diverse parts of the city and using diverse methods, and the ones that have stuck in my mind are that of Neftalí Gutiérrez, a taxi driver, beaten to death with a wheel wrench, and that of Jairo Alejandro Niño, an automotive mechanic, who received nine machete blows in a vacant lot on the west side. The Laverde crime was one of many, and it was almost arrogant or pretentious to believe that we were due the luxury of an answer.

‘But what had he done to get himself killed?’ my father asked me.

‘I don’t know,’ I told him. ‘He hadn’t done anything.’

‘He must’ve done something,’ he’d say.

‘But what does it matter now,’ my mother would say.

‘Well, yes,’ said my father. ‘What does it matter now.’

As I began surfacing, my hatred for Laverde gave way to a hatred for my own body and what my body was feeling. And that hatred that had myself as its object transformed into a hatred for everyone else, and one day I decided I didn’t want to see anybody, and I expelled my family from the hospital and forbade them from coming back to see me until my situation improved. ‘But we worry,’ said my mother, ‘we want to take care of you.’ ‘But I don’t. I don’t want you to take care of me. I don’t want anyone taking care of me. I want you all to go.’ ‘What if you need something? What if we can help you and we’re not here?’ ‘I don’t need anything. I need to be alone. I want to be alone.’ I want to sample silence, I thought then: a line from León de Greiff, another of the poets I used to listen to at Silva’s house (poetry accosts us at the most unexpected moments). Quiero catar silencio, non curo de compaña, I want to sample silence, I won’t be cured by companionship. Leave me alone. Yes, that’s what I said to my parents. Leave me alone.

A doctor came to explain the uses of the trigger I had in my hand: when I felt too much pain, he told me, I could press the button, and a spurt of intravenous morphine would soothe me immediately. But there were limits. The first day I used up my daily dose in a third of the time (I pressed the button like a child with a new video game), and the hours that followed are, in my memory, the closest I’ve been to hell. I’m telling this because that’s how, between the hallucinations of the pain and those of the morphine, the days of my recovery went by. I fell asleep at any moment, without any apparent routine, like prisoners in stories; I opened my eyes to a landscape that was always strange, the most curious characteristic of which was that it never became familiar, I always seemed to be seeing it for the first time. At some moment I can’t manage to pinpoint, my wife, Aura appeared in that landscape, sitting there on the brown sofa when I opened my eyes, looking at me with genuine pity. It was a new sensation (or it was new to be looked at and cared for by a woman who was expecting my child), but I don’t recall having thought so at the time.

The nights. I remember the nights. The fear of the darkness began in those last days of my hospitalization, and only disappeared a year later: at six thirty in the evening, when night falls suddenly in Bogotá, my heart began to beat furiously, and at first it took the dialectic efforts of several doctors to convince me that I wasn’t about to die of a heart attack. The long Bogotá night – it always lasts more than eleven hours, no matter the time of year and much less the mental state of those who suffer it – seemed almost unendurable to me in the hospital, with its nocturnal life marked by the permanently illuminated white corridors, by the neon gloom of the white rooms; but in the bedroom of my apartment the darkness was total, for the streetlights didn’t reach my tenth floor, and the terror I felt at just imagining myself waking up in the dark obliged me to sleep with the light on, as I did when I was little. Aura put up with the illuminated nights better than I would have expected, sometimes resorting to those masks they give you on planes to create a personal darkness, sometimes giving up and turning on the television to watch an infomercial and amuse herself with machines that chop all kinds of fruit and lotions that dissolve all body fat. Her own body, of course, was transforming; a little girl called Leticia was growing in there, but I wasn’t capable of giving her the attention she deserved. I was woken up on several nights by an absurd nightmare: I’d gone back to live at my parents’ house, but with Aura, and suddenly the gas stove blew up and the whole family was dying and I realized there was nothing I could do. And, no matter what time it was, I ended up phoning my old house, just to make sure nothing had happened in reality and that the dream was just a dream. Aura tried to calm me down. She stared at me, I could feel her looking at me. ‘It’s nothing,’ I told her. And only at the end of the night would I manage to sleep for a few hours, coiled up like a dog frightened by fireworks, wondering why Leticia wasn’t in the dream, what had Leticia done to be banished from the dream.

In my memory, the months that followed were a time of large fears and small discomforts. On the street I was assailed by the unmistakable certainty I was being watched; the internal injuries caused by the bullet wound forced me to use crutches for several months. A pain I’d never felt before appeared in my left leg, similar to what people feel when they’re about to have an appendicitis attack. The doctors told me how slowly nerves grow and the time it takes to recover a certain degree of autonomy, and I listened to them without understanding, or without understanding that they were talking about me; somewhere else, far from where I was, Aura listened to explanations from other doctors on very different subjects, and took folic acid tablets and received cortisone injections to help the baby’s lungs mature (in Aura’s family there was a history of premature deliveries). Her body was changing, but I didn’t notice. Aura put my hand on one side of her prominent belly button. ‘There, there she is. Did you feel?’ ‘But what does it feel like?’ I asked. ‘I don’t know, like a butterfly, like tiny wings brushing against your skin. I don’t know if you understand.’ And I told her I did, that I understood perfectly, although it was a lie.

I didn’t feel anything: I was distracted: the fear distracted me. I imagined the faces of the murderers, hidden behind the visors; the blast of the shots and the continuous whistle in my throbbing eardrums, the sudden apparition of blood. Not even now, as I write, can I manage to remember those details without the same cold fear easing into my body. The fear, in the fantastic language of the therapist who treated me after the first problems, was called post-traumatic stress, and according to him had a lot to do with the era of bombs that had ravaged us a few years earlier. ‘So don’t worry if you have problems of an intimate nature,’ the man told me (he spoke those words, intimate nature). I didn’t say anything to that. ‘Your body is fighting something serious,’ the doctor continued. ‘It has to concentrate on this and eliminate what isn’t strictly necessary. The libido is the first to go, you see? So don’t worry. Any dysfunction is normal.’ I didn’t respond this time either. Dysfunction: the word seemed ugly to me, its sounds seemed to clash, disfiguring the atmosphere, and I thought I wouldn’t talk about the matter with Aura. The doctor kept talking, there was no way to make him stop talking. Fear was the main ailment of bogotanos of my generation, he told me. My situation, he told me, was not at all unusual: it would eventually pass, as it had passed for all the others who had visited his office. All this he told me. He never managed to comprehend that I wasn’t interested in the rational explanation or much less the statistical aspect of these violent palpitations, or the instantaneous sweating that in another context would have been comical, but in the magic words that would make the sweating and palpitations disappear, the mantra that would allow me to sleep through the night.

After a few months, when I could move around a bit, though still with a significant hobble that could probably become permanent, I asked around about Ricardo to figure out more of his past life. The man had always been such a mystery. I learned that he was a pilot who was caught smuggling drugs into the United States and given a 19-year jail sentence. I cannot believe I befriended a man who was involved in drug trafficking. What was I thinking? It was so obvious that he wasn’t a simple man. How could I never think that this guy, who leads such an intriguing, elaborate life, is not involved in some sort of a drug cartel? It should have been obvious. Somewhere in my head I knew. Because everybody knows. But I suppressed those thoughts. Because I was impressed by his life. Maybe I desired that life. Look where it left me. I limped back into my bed. At least I survived.


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