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Nicolas Poynter

Nicolas Poynter

Nicolas Poynteris a graduate of the Red Earth MFA program at Oklahoma City University. His work has appeared in many publications, including North American Review, Citron Review, Mary, Gravel and So It Goes – the journal of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library. He is a high-school dropout (not quite finishing the tenth grade) who now teaches AP Chemistry in Mexico City.

The Odd Behavior of Light in Lima, Peru

Mr. Santiago kept one hand glued to his satchel as he snaked his way towards the ovalo, his shadows climbing and scaling across the apartment buildings on both sides of the street like a troop of monkeys scurrying through jungle trees. The monkeys left him in the dark gaps between the buildings but then aggressively surged back into existence whenever he passed a brightly-lit lobby. Mr. Santiago took comfort in the monkeys because, although he lived in what was certainly the safest district in an otherwise dangerous city, there were no guarantees anywhere so early in the morning and Mr. Santiago of course understood this, his head routinely swiveling to look behind him. He was also careful to change his route each day, alternating between three distinct paths, because if it became known that a man with a magic satchel could be found on a specific street at a specific moment each morning, that was the type of news that would survive and travel like a wave on the ocean.

Mr. Santiago would have liked to have slept later in the morning, but the broken quantum mechanics of Lima, Peru wouldn't allow it, forcing him to arrive at work absurdly early as the only means to avoid being an hour late. This was in fact the dilemma for the entire city—that it had become impossible to occupy a singular time and space in Lima and therefore you had to choose between being somewhere before you wanted to be there or after you wanted to be there. Most, if not all, Peruvians chose the latter. But Mr. Santiago, so terrified of being late to anything that he had ruined the three surprise parties of his life, religiously left his apartment before six and, in darkness, marched the five blocks to the ovalo where he would find a taxi to ferry him across the southern half of Lima.

Even though he had already taken more than one hundred taxis since arriving in the country and calculated that he would take more than one thousand by the end of his contract, Mr. Santiago had never and almost certainly would never take the same taxi twice. There were simply that many taxis. His colleagues told him that there were more taxis in Lima, Peru than anywhere else in the world and he believed them. They also told him that if he kept doing what he was doing—finding random taxis on the street in the dark—he would eventually get into the wrong taxi. He believed them on that point also, but was more worried that he would arrive late for work.

Mr. Santiago took his standard position on the ovalo, his satchel pressed tight against his stomach, the strap taught around his neck, the monkeys surrounding him and rising and falling with each of Mr. Santiago's deep breaths. He was careful not to look too much as though he wanted a taxi because it was difficult to identify a "good" taxi from a distance and that way if a "bad" taxi arrived, he could just smile politely and shake his head as if he didn't need a taxi after all and was just standing there in darkness for some whole other purpose. It was a game—flirting with taxis until something relatively clean arrived with at least one religious item hanging from the rearview mirror and then, God willing, the backseat window would go all the way down and he would not have to rest his elbow uncomfortably on a glass edge. But that was not a realistic hope. Only two or three times that Mr. Santiago could remember did the backseat window retract all the way down. Once it had even been glued to the frame of the car and he had taken the trip with his hands uncomfortably in his lap.

A white taxi with official markings caught his attention as it circled the ovalo like a shark. Mr. Santiago pointed to the ground in front of him, the established signal in Lima, and the taxi subsequently crossed four lanes of traffic diagonally and pulled up beside him. But when Mr. Santiago looked inside to negotiate the price, he saw that the driver appeared to be some sort of pirate. He didn't like to hurt people's feelings but he was not getting into any taxi driven by a pirate. But how do you stop a taxi, look into the driver's face and say no thanks without hurting his feelings? Mr. Santiago turned to the monkey on his right for help, but the monkey just as quickly pivoted away from him—further evidence, he thought, that the monkeys could not be trusted and would not be there for him if he ever really needed them. The driver then cursed at Mr. Santiago and drove off, performing the maneuver with such fluidity that Mr. Santiago thought surely he was accustomed to people looking at him and then not wanting to take a ride with him.

A rusty red taxi with foot-sized dents all along the fender pulled into the spot the pirate taxi had vacated, causing Mr. Santiago to frown and clutch his satchel as if it were a child he was protecting from harm. But he could see the driver wore a sweater vest and certainly if anybody could be trusted, it was a man wearing a sweater vest, and anyway he was worried the pirate was circling the ovalo and that in the darkness he might accidentally stop him again, so he quickly negotiated a fee of twenty soles and jumped inside. The backseat window went halfway down and Mr. Santiago hung his arm out of it awkwardly like he was giving some form of road signal to the vehicles behind them. The particularly furry monkey seated beside him saw this and opened his mouth as wide as it would go—an obvious gesture of ridicule.

"Los discos de oro en Ingles," the radio explained and then a song from Mr. Santiago's traumatic childhood began playing. It bothered him that all the taxis seemed to be tuned to American music from the seventies because he felt as though Lima was not allowing him to let go of his past. Even worse, the monkeys had once whispered in his ear that he was going to die to a particular disco song and he really didn't like that—the idea of being murdered to "play that funky music white boy." But his colleagues had also told him that surely that was going to be his fate—to be murdered in a Peruvian taxi—because every morning he contracted a different taxi in the dark in Lima, Peru and eventually he would get into the wrong taxi. It was basic statistics and simple probability.

Mr. Santiago always tried to laugh off their ominous, mathematical warnings. "Sure... and if I keep playing the lottery, it is certain I will eventually win, assuming I don't die of natural causes first."

"You are going to die alright," they told him. "But it won't be of natural causes. Some taxi driver is going to stab you in the heart to see what is inside that satchel you are always hugging so tight."

The satchel... Mr. Santiago saw the driver watching him in the rearview mirror, watching the satchel, and he removed the strap from his neck and placed it gently at his side, acting as if the satchel was not that important to him, but keeping his hand, intertwined with a monkey paw, firmly on the handle. In the rearview mirror, he could only see the eyes of the driver and from that perspective, without the sweater vest as a cloak, he appeared much less trustworthy, his eyes making Mr. Santiago think of a cartoon snake. Why hadn't he looked in his eyes before getting in the taxi? Mr. Santiago guarded his satchel with his peripheral vision. The driver also seemed fixated on it, his snake eyes darting back and forth between it and the road. Everybody, it seemed, wanted to know the contents of the satchel that Mr. Santiago always carried but never opened.

Mr. Santiago was certain that the headmaster of the private school where he taught physics to rich Peruvian children thought he had a bomb in his satchel. He thought this because he had insinuated as much to the janitor who spoke no English and seemed to hate him for no good reason, winking maniacally and patting the satchel. "Boom, boom," Mr. Santiago had told him. Mr. Santiago was upset at the janitor because the janitor didn't seem to like him and for no good reason, and therefore he enjoyed confusing him when there was an opportunity.

Soon after intimating to the janitor who seemed to hate him for no good reason that he had a bomb in his satchel, Mr. Santiago had been summoned to a meeting with the headmaster and recoursos humanos, supposedly precipitated by the complaints of parents regarding the odd things that Mr. Santiago was saying in class, for instance telling his students that it was impossible to get a good haircut in Peru.

Mr. Santiago had held his hand up to stop the headmaster. "It is not that they can't cut hair well here in Peru. They most certainly can. It is just that they don't care if they cut your hair well. This is the central problem of the entire country—the lack of effort. Walking into any establishment here, is like walking into a casino." Tears had begun to well up in Mr. Santiago's eyes as he spoke.

The headmaster had glared at Mr. Santiago over his eyeglasses for almost a minute without speaking. "Whatever your opinions of Peru, Mr. Santiago, you should obviously not be discussing them with to your Peruvian students if they are negative."

"Oh, like they didn't know already. Just look at them," Mr. Santiago had told him, wiping away a tear. "It is horrible they have to look that way. That was all I was saying."

The headmaster had again glared at Mr. Santiago and then had begun reading from a document, what had basically been a list of all the odd things Mr. Santiago had told his students. But Mr. Santiago knew the real reason for the meeting by the way the headmaster kept looking at his satchel—the janitor who hated him so much had ratted him out for having a pretend bomb. Mr. Santiago had abruptly stood and pointed the top of his head towards the two women from recoursos humanos. “I have gotten my hair cut six times already by the same woman,” he told them. “Every time I give her the same instructions and every time she cuts it different than the time before.” He had then collapsed forward, his arms bracing his body against the table, the satchel swinging softly like a pendulum by the strap around his neck. Mr. Santiago didn’t know why he hadn’t been fired after the meeting with the headmaster and recoursos humanos. Perhaps they were indeed worried about the bomb he didn’t have in his satchel.

Mr. Santiago had almost lost his magic satchel on his very first day in Peru. His flight had arrived early and he had had to wait several hours because, of course, the owner of his new apartment had been late with the keys. "Traffic," she had told him when he called her. "Please give me twenty minutes," which in Peru time meant three hours. He had found a nearby place to wait and try the different pisco cocktails that he had read about during the flight. His waiter had initially tried to tie up his satchel on the seat next to him as was the custom in Peru, but Mr. Santiago would have none of it and instead had placed it between his feet, inconspicuously winding the strap carefully around one ankle with the opposing foot.

Everyone knew that arriving from the airport was the most dangerous point in any itinerary, the moment when you had everything—passport, cash, credit cards, computers, cell phones, documents. Everybody knew this, the thieves most of all and that is why they, the thieves, marked people from the airport, sometimes following them great distances to see if they could take it, everything, from them. Mr. Santiago had felt secure with his satchel tight between his feet and the pisco taking effect, but remained vigilant, carefully marking the faces of the pedestrians who moved past him like a river, noticing that every fifth or sixth face aggressively scanned the open-air tables, presumably for something to snatch.

It was then, on that very first day, that a beautiful Peruvian woman about his age, with black silky hair to her waist, raced by his table and what appeared to be a wad of cash fell from her hands and into her wake. Mr. Santiago had been halfway out of his chair, shaking his leg to get free of the strap of his satchel, but then had thought better about it. Although Mr. Santiago had been born in the states, he had a Peruvian mother and many Peruvian aunts and he knew very well that Peruvian women, and certainly she was Peruvian, do not carelessly drop wads of money on the street or walk fast for that matter. So he had gently returned to his seat, caressing his pisco cocktail with both hands, the satchel strap rewinding around his ankle. Nice try he had thought, smiling and taking a voracious sip.

Soon enough she had reappeared and had made an over-the-top, theatrical gesture at finding the money she had intentionally dropped on the street, causing Mr. Santiago to roll his eyes and shake his head as a means to criticize her performance. She had not been a very good actress. She hadn't looked at him but for certain she had seen his reaction, and smirked towards the street, a smirk that was obviously meant for Mr. Santiago, and then once again she had disappeared, walking altogether differently than before, in an opposing direction and at an entirely slower pace.

"Amigo?" The taxi driver smiled at him in the rearview mirror, like a cartoon snake would smile. "You are a professor, no?"


"You carry many books there in the bag? They are heavy, no?"

"Yes. My books are very heavy. That is why I leave them at the school."

They were halfway, approaching the steep climb which circled around the abandoned quarry where people lost things that they never wanted to be found, deep inside the shadow of the mountain. Mr. Santiago looked and saw that the seat next to him was empty. The driver was watching Mr. Santiago so intently in the rearview mirror, that Mr. Santiago wondered how he was still able to follow the curves of the road.

"No books?"

"No books."

"Then why such a big bag? What is inside the bag please?"



"Yes... But not a bomb."

"A bomb?"

"I said not a bomb."

The driver's sordid smile disappeared but then quickly reappeared.

"What you mean everything?"

"Passport, cash, credit cards, jewelry, two different computers. You know? Everything."

The driver's eyes finally disappeared from the mirror and Mr. Santiago noticed him wipe his mouth. "I think there is a problem with the tire," he said, pulling off the road along side of the abandoned quarry where people lost things that they never wanted to be found again. In the dark it would be easy to drive into the pit, or off the mountain for that matter as there were no guardrails on either side, and Mr. Santiago was anxious as the car skidded to an abrupt stop, a small-diameter dust cloud forming around it. "A moment please," the driver told him. "And I am afraid you will need to get out too for me to repair the tire."

"Of course."

The light was just beginning to leak over the mountains in front of them, but still no monkeys. From their altitude, Mr. Santiago could see backwards to Miraflores, the distinct line of hotels along the coast which soon would be shimmering in direct sunlight. His apartment and his job seemed so close to one another from that perspective and in reality they were. It was sad to him that he could not get back and forth more simply. He would have liked to have slept a little more in the mornings. Mr. Santiago then became worried about standing on the passenger's side of the car, along the road, where another taxi might not see him in the dark, and he walked behind the taxi to the driver's side, where he could see the silhouette of the driver who was obviously not inspecting any of his tires and instead brandishing a knife.

"Amigo, I don't want to kill to you. Give me the bag and you can have life. Understand?"

Mr. Santiago pulled his satchel close to his chest and shook his head no, meaning no he was not going to allow the driver to take his satchel and not no he didn't understand. He understood.

The driver plunged the knife toward Mr. Santiago's throat but Mr. Santiago blocked it by lifting his satchel high, knocking the knife free and sending it spinning like a baton into the air, so high that it caught the light which then began reflecting wildly off of it in all directions. The beauty of the parabolic path mesmerized Mr. Santiago, the physics professor, and he watched the knife reverently for several moments, until he felt something enter his stomach, and then it happened again and again, so many times that he lost count. A second knife! Mr. Santiago collapsed to the ground and the driver stepped on his throat while pulling the satchel away from him, tearing it lose from its strap which remained secured tightly inside Mr. Santiago's clenched fists.

Mr. Santiago reached for his back. He felt like the knife was there, which was odd because he had been stabbed from the front. Had someone also stabbed him from behind? Had there been three knives? He wiggled his body so that he could probe his back but found no knife. He then rolled over to see the driver open the satchel and then watched as his snake smile vanished like the darkness surrounding him. The truth was there was nothing in Mr. Santiago's satchel. The truth was he had chased after the pretty girl, almost tripping on his satchel strap he had jumped up so fast. She had been moving so quickly that it had taken him several blocks to catch her, and then, of course, when he had returned to his table, his satchel had been long gone. He had bought a second satchel but had never managed to replace the magic. He had lost everything on his very first day in Lima, Peru.

The driver looked up at him with the expression of a little boy who had opened a Christmas present to find underwear and Mr. Santiago started to laugh, causing blood to spill out of his mouth. He simply couldn't help himself. The driver squatted on his haunches, his face still lost, his eyes fixated on Mr. Santiago's bloody fingers which were tapping rhythmically to the song now being hummed by an army of recently-arrived, black-as-coal monkeys.


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