Spring 2006

Walter Bennett


Walter Bennett Walter Bennett is a lawyer and writer who lives and writes in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He has published short fiction, has finished one novel he is trying to sell, and is at work on a second novel. He has published extensively in the legal field, including, The Lawyer's Myth (University of Chicago Press, 2001), which uses myth and narrative to envision ways to return honor and spirit to the legal profession.
Vaca Loca    

Late in the day of the fiesta, he escaped the gathering crowds by visiting the Cathedral on the Plaza de la Independencia, following the route he and Andie had taken on their Quito vacation. And again the journey seemed surreal, his footsteps echoing under the great, vaulted ceiling; huddles of tourists muttering at the plaster feet of weeping Virgins and bleeding bodies of Christ. When he and Andie had made the tour before, he'd watched her body slacken as if giving up to something, her eyes darken to melanic points at each new icon of suffering, and he'd dreaded losing her to wherever the mood was taking her, to those hidden places he was not allowed to go. She always wanted time alone when that happened, and he resisted it. It was the last thing she needed, given her history.

He'd tried to deflect his fear by calmly reading aloud from the guidebook as they made their way from statue to statue. The wounded Jesuses were early Ecuadorian artists' representations of the brutalization of native Quichuans at the hands of the invading Spanish, it said. Celebrations of endurance and courage.

He paused at the last dying Jesus, gazing inertly from its candle-lit cubicle. "A bit garish, don't you think?"

She had reached as if to touch the dripping wound, then let her hand fall beside her, limp as the blood-drained statue itself. "No," she'd said. "They're not garish at all. They're peaceful and sad—quietly accepting of something—fate, perhaps." He'd wanted to touch her then, reach out as she had toward the bleeding Jesus. And he almost did. But then she'd added, more to herself than to him, "I envy them," and he'd felt instantly alone.

Today, as he passed by the glaze-eyed icons, he could feel his own resignation—or was it agitation—? There was a residue of anger since her suicide—at her, for leaving him so suddenly and brutally, for no reason he'd been able to discern–and lately, he suspected, at himself. What had he done to bring his anger on himself, other than stand by her through all the moods and ensuing traumas, the endless series of therapists and rollercoaster of tried-and-failed drugs? Yet today the bleeding Jesuses seemed to join his self-accusation–staring down at him in their pathetic woundedness. He wanted to rip them from their make-believe thrones and crush them under his feet.

He'd been in Quito for seven days now in what he'd finally admitted to himself was a search for Andie. But over the last few days it had felt more like a haunting–not by her, but by him–as if he had become his own ghost, prowling the cathedrals and tiny shops of Old Quito, searching for pockets of memory that might afford him another gasp of life. He missed her terribly, but each step in his journey had begun to echo its futility. What he sought did not exist. Andie was not "out there." All he had left of her was inside him, a wavering opacity slowly inking away.

He cut short the Cathedral tour, strode through the great mahogany doorway out onto the sunlit balcony and stared out over the Plaza filling with people. Andie had loved the Ecuadorians—the Mestizos, especially—with their brightly dressed children, their open, accepting faces. She was constantly trying to talk with them in her broken Spanish, kneeling to hug the children. She displayed a lot of love for other people–people from other countries, complete strangers—and yet was so quiet in her love for him, in her expressions of their relationship. Soon the plaza would be full of children she could kneel and hug. But Andie wasn't here anymore. His own arms felt very empty. Why was he even staying for the fiesta? He should have left days ago.

He descended the wide, stone steps and walked across the plaza toward the Café Cueva del Oso to order a beer. He ordered a glass of Club Verde and started up the narrow stairway to the bar's second story room. And there they were–Scott and Dana—seated at the same table where he and Andie had eaten supper with them two years before. He should have known they might be here. They visited Peru and Ecuador at least once a year–something to do with Scott's work as an anthropologist. He didn't like coincidences, and his impulse was to slip back down the stairway and drink his beer anonymously in the crowd of people outside. There was something portentous about seeing them here–same bar, same room, same table, exactly two years later. But he was too late: Scott Poole was already on his feet, loping across the low-ceilinged room, grinning under a loose curl of gray hair that swayed from his hitching gait. War wound? Boating accident? Lou could not remember.

The Pooles were older than Andie and he. They lived in one of those college towns in upstate New York he rarely heard about and that always struck him as isolated and cold. Dana was some sort of therapist. Scott, who was considerably older than she, taught at the local college. Lou had met them at the Excelsior Hotel in Quito where Dana recognized Andie from a conference they'd attended together in the States. The four of them had spent much of the next day and the evening of the fiesta together. Until near her death, Andie and Dana had been e-mail buddies. And they had visited with each other again at another conference somewhere on women's issues. Something had gone wrong there. He wasn't sure what. All Andie would say about it was that Dana was "strange" at times and "erratic." He had not heard much about the Pooles since then except for a note of condolence from Scott after Andie's death.

He accepted Scott's invitation automatically and felt their watchful stares as he took his seat and set his beer on the table.

Scott began in a voice resonant with sincerity: "Lou, we're so sorry about Andie. Truly."

Dana's dark eyes made him uneasy. Strange? Erratic? He could feel it himself now.

"Thanks," he said. "It's been a rough year."

"Of course it has," said Scott. He shot a brief glance at Dana, then let his eyes rest consolingly on Lou and cleared his throat. "I don't want to pry, Lou, but do you have any idea what brought it on?"

"Not really." He felt himself sigh as he said it. Why was he so nervous? Dana's gaze had not moved. He had the eerie feeling that she was searching him for signs of Andie. He returned his attention to Scott. "Well, she was depressed. She'd been that way off and on. She'd gotten some help for it."

Dana tilted her head to an examining posture. Her wiry, blond hair remained static around a thick, ruddy face that always seemed to Lou on the verge of breaking into either anger or inappropriate mirth. There was something matronly and sexy about it, including a rather brazen looking mole on her right upper lip—a nail, carefully driven to hold the rest of it in place. He turned back to Scott.

"But apparently not enough," she said.

Scott shot her another glance. "Well, you can never tell about that." His gaze nestled about Lou like a soft blanket. "What was Andie depressed over?"

He had assumed when he sat down that they would be ill at ease over his loss and hesitant to talk about it. But it was more as if they'd been waiting for him to wander into the Cueva del Oso so they could ply him with questions.

"I don't know," he said. He braced himself and returned Dana's gaze fully for the first time. "Do you?"

Her face stiffened. She dropped her eyes. "Well, it was obvious to anyone, Lou, that Andie was troubled. There was the anorexia and the obsessive stuff about the Cathedral icons and the statue of the Virgin on Panecillo. And, of course, the Vaca Loca. I'll never get over how upset she was over that."

The anorexia was a long time ago. And how did Dana know about it? But she was right about the icons and the Vaca Loca, the papier-mache "crazy cow," as the Ecuadorians called it, that ran through the cheering crowd at the climax of the Fiesta of Independence, spewing rockets, trailing its tail of popping firecrackers and a cadre of whooping children. He and Andie and the Pooles had watched it outside the café where he now sat. It had clearly upset Andie. She saw it as a mockery of the wounded icons they'd seen earlier in the Cathedral, a connection that made no sense to him. The Vaca Loca wasn't even religious. It was a big joke, a make-believe paper cow.

"The icons were meant to be upsetting," he said. "That's their purpose. And the Vaca Loca . . . I think it was more the pickpocket that upset her than that."

Finally Dana raised her eyes. "The pickpocket? I thought you decided that never really happened."

Pickpockets were another of Andie's phobias. She'd claimed to have seen one at the fiesta, fading into the line of people behind them as they stood and watched the Vaca Loca. A round, shapeless woman, Andie said, not more than four feet tall, draped in an earth-colored serape, with an ancient, snaggle-toothed face. Andie shuddered all over as she described the woman: "Evil," she'd said, "like a spirit from another age, come to steal the present."

Lou forced a smile at Dana. "Andie had a wild imagination. But who knows–maybe she saw something."

"Well, that's the whole point, isn't it?" Dana's eyes flashed. "Andie saw things the rest of us didn't see."

He was being attacked by her? And for what?

"And sometimes things that weren't there," he said. Andie's memory seemed to slip further beyond his reach the moment he said it.

The lines around Dana's mouth tightened. Scott placed his hand on her wrist. "It was dark," he said. "People were everywhere. Who knows what she saw. But her description was quite detailed as I recall."

"Exactly," said Dana. "Even if it wasn't there for the rest of us." She punctuated her statement with a nod toward Lou.

He wasn't sure why he was in this contest. But he found himself welcoming it in a grudging sort of way.

Dana began to stir a sweat puddle on the table with her finger. Scott watched her for a moment as if to be sure she was all right. Then he turned to Lou. "It's great to see you, Lou. Frankly I'm a little surprised. What brings you back?"

"I'm not sure," he said. "Hope, I suppose."

"For what?" said Dana. That stare again–straight at him.

"I don't know–Andie, I guess, or some memory of her."

Dana's face clinched tighter. Once again Scott placed his hand on her wrist. "That's understandable, Lou," he said. "Maybe your coming here was a necessary step to healing. We let go of these things a piece at a time."

"Yes, I'm finding that out," he said. The feeling of being left behind returned, the vision of Andie's arm reaching toward the bleeding icon.

Scott sighed as if he'd done a day's work since Lou entered the room. "Well," he said. "I'm overdue for a trip to the can. Order me another beer if the waiter comes our way again." He gave Lou's shoulder a squeeze as he rose and headed down the stairs.

Dana wiped her finger on a bar napkin and fixed her gaze on the swirling pattern she'd made with the sweat puddle.

He sipped his beer and watched her. Why not go on and push it, see where it led?

"Do you need to say something to me, Dana?"

A puffiness had entered her cheeks that disgusted him. She blinked her teary eyes. "You never understood her, Lou, the whole time you two were together. You never...." She gave a quick shake to her head. Her voice trailed into a sob.

He let her cry—stew in whatever it was she was stewing in–her wild presumptions, her arrogant certainty about someone she barely knew, someone he'd loved and lived with for over eight years. Goddamn her! What was her problem? Why was he bothering with this nonsense? He should have walked out after her first insinuation.

He fought to keep his voice even. "How do you know what I did or didn't do with Andie?"

Her finger dipped again toward the puddle, touching the wetness.

"All the e-mails," he said. "What did you and she talk about? And that last conference you two attended–what was that all about?"

She raised her eyes to him. The tension around them disappeared. "It was about everything, Lou. You might as well know: I loved Andie, and she loved me. You never saw the calmness and peace below her pain, did you? All you ever saw was the pain. Well, the calmness was there, and it waited for me every time I saw her." She dropped her eyes again. Her face edged from sadness to scorn. "But she loved everything, didn't she, Lou? That was her problem. She didn't want to hurt you. It tore her apart. It's what finally killed her."

A cold wave broke over him. He felt a thickness like water in his nose and throat.

"Bullshit!" he sputtered. "What are you saying?"

She kept her gaze on him. "She was trapped in her own tenderness, Lou. In her decency. In the prison of your self-deluded love."

He was being sucked down, unable to speak or breathe. He grabbed the arms of his chair and shoved himself to his feet, righting a tip in his balance as he rose. He wanted to slap this woman across her tear-streaked face, across those puffy cheeks hanging below the bent forehead, not looking at him, her finger madly stirring the puddle now, spreading it across the table.

"I know how she died," she said.

"Fuck you," he said. "Nobody knows. Nobody but me and the coroner and the police."

"I do," she said. "Every detail of it. I talk with Andie every day."

He reached for his beer but stopped himself from flinging it at her and dumped it instead on the table. Foamy suds shot out across the rough wood, washing over the smear of Dana's puddle. She shoved her chair back, dodged her legs to one side and jerked her head up to glare at him. A grim satisfaction glowed in her eyes.

He turned and started up the stairs, brushing past Scott on his way up, ignoring Scott's "Wait! Lou!" He leapt from the last two risers and shoved his way out of the restaurant into the jammed plaza, walking furiously. Without thinking he headed for one of the side streets leading uphill past the Cathedral.

Behind him the fiesta was getting started. The band in front of the Palacio de Gobierno played a slow waltz he remembered from two years before. He and Andie had danced to it briefly before the Vaca Loca made its run. So close then. So easy in the slow rhythm of trumpets and guitars. She'd clung to him like a flower growing against a wall. And later, as they stood watching the crowd, she'd crossed her arms over her belly and pressed her back into him. He let his arms drape over her slim shoulders, and caressed her forearms with his hands. In effect, he'd been hugging her as she hugged herself. Very pleasant. Very sexy. But now, after Dana, it felt possessive in a weak and disgusting kind of way.

Had he trapped Andie in that cradle of his body and arms, imprisoning her in his own desperate need? That accusation of Dana's had gotten to him. It twisted his love for Andie, the goodness in his efforts to protect her from herself. That's what had set him off. Not the "love" stuff between Dana and Andie. That was bullshit. That was Dana's twisted, wishful thinking. But the cage, the prison thing, had a sting to it, even though Andie had never mentioned it–ever. But that was the problem, wasn't it? She almost never talked about their relationship. She left him guessing and hoping, starving him and herself, her anorexic approach to talk of love. Or was it only with him? Maybe she was more open about things with Dana, about their relationship if they had one. Perhaps she'd been more open with Dana about everything.

And that voice from the grave stuff—Andie talking with Dana from the great beyond, telling her all about the suicide, the slashes to Andie's body, dozens of them, one-after-the-other as she knelt naked in the middle of the living room, calmly slicing her own flesh–and why she had chosen that particular, horrible way to die. Could that be true? Did Dana really know about that—that deep, hidden part of Andie's world–the place that Dana called her "inner peace?"

Some peace! It was nonsense: there was no inner peace with Andie. He'd lived with her for eight years, and he'd never seen it. He knew her a lot better than Dana did.

He walked for another ten minutes, grinding it all in his head, rendering it into a fine powder of denial and obliteration–Dana, Andie, her rising fear as they'd walked by the icons, his rising fear as he'd watched her, that feeling of helplessness as she slipped from his presence into wherever she went at times like that, wherever her thoughts took her. The slender arm, rising toward the wounded Jesus, then falling to her side. He'd loved Andie. He really had. But he'd never known any calmness in her like Dana described. It was all a figment of Dana's imagination, another way of sticking the knife in–because he'd had Andie and she hadn't.

That was it, wasn't it? Dana's jealousy. It was she who yearned for peace and couldn't find it. Scott's hand, at least twice, patting her arm as if she was an overly distressed patient. That twisted, desperate part of her. She's the one who had preyed on Andie, on fragile, vulnerable Andie. And Andie had paid the price. It wasn't his love that had killed Andie, trapped her and suffocated her, as Dana had implied—it was Dana! That's what the whole thing had been about in the restaurant. Dana was trying to blame him for her own selfishness, her own evil. He wanted to crush her under his feet, just like the icons.

He had stopped walking without realizing it. Where was he? The noise of the fiesta was now a murmur far below in the darkness from which he'd come. He looked around. The shops were closed. He was alone. Before him the street narrowed to an even darker channel. He felt vulnerable all of a sudden–a lost American, wandering a foreign street at night with revelers, thieves, and pickpockets about. From the shadows of a side street, a couple of brightly dressed young men brushed past him, and then a threesome, two Mestizo girls and a boy, dodged by him on the narrow sidewalk on their way to the fiesta. He whirled about and followed them down the street, toward the lighted plaza he'd just fled.

It was like plunging into chaos. The fiesta was in full swing. Laughing, squealing children ran everywhere. Swaying lines of people danced, linked arms, and sang with the band–raucous songs that dipped into sadness and then rose to joy. He felt the vibrancy of the crowd, its rising anticipation of Vaca Loca. He worked his way toward the Cafe del Orso, where the Pooles were likely to be. Confront Dana–yes! Scott, too, if necessary–the smoother-over, the caretaker. Get it all out in the open. Plunge his hand into the open wound. Find out what was really there.

But the Pooles were not in front of the café or anywhere around it as far as he could tell. He kept going, pushing his way though the throngs, searching for the tilt of Scott's thin face under its hank of gray hair, for Dana's smirky, tear-stained cheeks.

He felt the vibrancy intensify around him. Shouts came from the edge of the crowd. The Vaca Loca was loose, out there in the darkness, approaching the plaza, full of sparks and mischief. The crowd shifted to clear a path. People packed in around him. It became harder and harder to move and then impossible. He was stuck, jammed into the shoving, cheering people, unable even to raise his arms.

It's their bodies he feels now–the ones Andie wanted so much to get close to, the children she loved to nuzzle and hug. He remembers a trip he took with Andie to a Mestizo village far up the Sacred Valley, where the people invited them into stone huts to sell them brightly colored, hand-knit blankets and scarves. Andie had knelt on the packed-earth floors and embraced the children, brushing their hair from their faces as if trying to frame perfect pictures. He'd wanted to hug them, too, hadn't he? Yes, he had–very much—but he didn't do it. Why? It wasn't their foreignness, their skin color, or the coarse black hair. It wasn't their poverty or the smell of earth, dung, and wood smoke on their skin and clothes. It was something else that he couldn't describe at the time. But he knew now: it was their happiness, wasn't it? The smiles on those bright, expectant faces. It was Andie's acceptance of that, her embracing it, joining it, that stymied him. It seemed so reckless, so heedless of consequences–exactly what consequences he wasn't sure, nor to whom. But he'd just stood there, watching, feeling left out, as he had during their journey of pain through the Cathedral.

A man in a straw hat nudges him and smiles. He nods and points to where the Vaco Loco will soon come through. The shouts around him grow louder. The Vaca Loca is coming closer now, darting right and left between the lines of people. Rockets spew from his ears, firecrackers pop on his tail and crackle around his sides and belly. Lou can see the huge, flopping head; the red and yellow body, lurching about on its four human legs; a whirlwind of noise, smoke, and chaos. Back and forth goes the swaying head as the fireworks crackle and sputter toward their smoky conclusion.

But it is the face of the Vaca Loca that grabs him. There is something eerily human about it, a great sadness in the drooping eyes, the over-sized nostrils with holes for the wearers of the costume to see out from the dark interior. It looks numbed in the wild, accepting way of an animal that knows it is about to die. It throws its head as it passes Lou, as if to shake off the final stages of torment.

A young woman next to the man in the straw hat is watching him. She has a soft, kind face. She reaches into a pocket and offers him a tissue. "El humo," she says. "The smoke. Es muy malo."

"Gracias." He takes the tissue and dabs at his eyes. She continues to watch him, a look of puzzled concern on her face. He can still see the Vaco Loco, now only a soot-blackened, paper cow, hobbling away into the darkness from which it came, still chased by the children.

The fiesta, too, is dying. The excitement quickly ebbs. The crowd loosens up; people begin to drift away. The woman who offered him the tissue gives him a backward glance as she turns to walk off with her family. The band plays its final tribute to the old revolution.

He remains standing in the same posture that he assumed when the people were pressed around him—drawn up, his legs stiff and locked together; his arms wrapped around his chest and stomach as if to protect himself from the cold. He feels dazed, not quite conscious, so out of it that in the days to come, he will wonder if what happened next really happened.

He feels a bump from behind and whirls to catch the pickpocket. And there she is–an old woman like the one Andie described, slipping off into the milling crowd. She is wizened in her brown serape and withered skin–a being, a spirit, whatever—that seems to come from another place and another time. She gives him a snaggle-toothed grin.

He taps his pocket. The roll of bills is still there.

But there's that feeling, isn't there, that she took something and whatever it was is gone forever.

He presses his arms more firmly around his chest, allowing himself to feel his own body for the first time since her suicide–hugging himself for a change. That is all he has left. It's all he's ever had, really. But it's something. It's something to live for, though it feels as empty as a plundered pocket.



Walter Bennett: Fiction
Copyright © 2006 The Cortland Review Issue 31The Cortland Review