FEBO WAITED FOR A PENCIL
Febo could not have realized the truth that accompanied his words or that went out before them like a shock wave. He was not a man for writing. Too open and overly cheerful, it was his own life that should have been the subject for a writer. But not for him personally. He loved to wake up to a good blow job. Most of all he prized expensive water, and he kept tight rein on himself so as not to buy bottles costing a hundred dollars, but as the relationship with Dulcinea became ever more serious, the reasons to deny himself enjoyment faded away. Money arrived regularly, and Febo withdrew it every first Tuesday in the month using credit cards in other people’s names. He would buy grapes and a liter of Montparnasse water. Then he would write for several days, fuck with his whores, and let them have the most expensive golden shower in the world, as he liked to say. Febo was a moral wreck, of course, but his approach to women was businesslike and he never did anything by force. He put all his force into his writing, in vain.
He felt that the whole world was like that—not a place where crucial victories were won by force. Take his hero, for example, whose head he was trying to enter: the inveterate Pablo Stratocastor, who managed to get himself killed at thirty–seven. Not a ripe old age. Like a rock star, he lived fast and succeeded in leaving behind a trail of violence, blood, coca, and general mayhem. But Pablo’s most important legacy was the network of capillaries that made up the great brain of his darling, and the decision of his life was not to gun down Dulcinea when he found her bare–assed with her lover in front of a mirror. Pablo could have drawn his revolver then and there—always a revolver, in homage to the past—and filled his darling and her toy boy with hot lead. But he decided to cool it, and thanks to that restraint there is someone to take care of his name today. Pablo knew that Dulcinea would be a lady after his death, a domina among dull–witted peasants who could never make it beyond a life of crime and violence. But Pablo did not know that the youngster, whose life Dulcinea begged on her knees for him to spare, would write his biography. Febo might have been the fucker who cuckolded him, but he would also turn Pablo into the folk hero Mexico had been waiting for ever since Pancho Villa.
While government propaganda branded the cartels as being a morass of depravity and death, Febo saw an open field before him—it was all lies, a soulless black–and–white story crying out to be filled with the soft tissue of sentiment and turned into fiction. For Febo, the best way of doing this was through the holy church and the patron mother of hungry children, Santa Ana de Rosarito. Pablo’s memorial was to be a chapel cut out of the living rock in a cliff overlooking the sea, with a huge fresco titled The Martyrs of the Tunnel, a portrayal of thirty immigrants supposedly buried alive in an operation of the American police. A little local legend for the tourists and the bumpkins. The truth was rather different: they were workers digging a very deep tunnel that should have had a ventilation system and was meant to come out in the CJ Boilers factory complex on the outskirts of Campo. The tunnel was Pablo’s brainchild and planned so that it could be paid off with just one consignment of smuggled goods. Unlike the passageways close to the surface made for the transit of people and drugs, this one was not for people and was kept a strict secret. The workers did not go out in the daylight, and they dug with primitive tools. The soil was a kind of caliche that looks pale yellow or orange from the outside, depending on the amount of moisture in it. The region is known for its downpours, and the first rainwater slowly seeps into the ground and carries nutrients deep down into the soil. Then something unusual happens: the water rises again from the saturated layer and returns all the valuable minerals and particles through the shallow roots of the plants. The workers had no idea about this process, nor did they care. They knew they would have enough air underground as long as the soil was moist. The water did not seal the ground but opened up cracks and nourished the trees and cactuses, whose roots created fine, conical eddies of sand at the edge of the desert. But the workers hit on a powerful column of methane, a deadly updraft deep in the earth, which put them all into a big sleep. As opposed to the version in the fresco, their death was not dramatic—there were no mounted rangers raining down fire on them and throwing an explosive charge in through a hole. On the contrary, they fell asleep like babies, perhaps for the first time in a long while, because they were sleepless unfortunates, blackmailed because they had a debt to the wrong man. Pablo knew no pardon, so he organized labor camps—purgatories through which his debtors could best thank him for his clemency by enabling him to make earnings worth millions. He did not have to share the money, and he only promised a small slice of it to a powerful contact on the American side who helped the official truth be turned into a sad immigrant story—a tale about the whims of the earth that sent the thirty martyrs into eternity although they had been so full of life and hope.
Unfortunate Febo was absorbed in thought in his motel room surrounded by fields of radishes. He did not even look up when Tiny the whore left. His eyes were glued to the screen of his laptop where now, for the first time, the letters flowed together in long lines; morning strength filled his fingers, which moved in a resolute whir; Pablo Stratocastor, a national hero, emerged from the mud of the caliche and, after losing a brother in that tunnel, swore to avenge his death. Febo knew that Pablo’s biography ought to be dedicated to that certain brother. Pablo never knew him because he washed his hands of his family as a child, before becoming the most powerful man in Mexico. His brother’s name was Ignacio and he wanted to get to Texas so he could earn the money to buy medicine for his sickly daughter. Febo wrote without fear, and a new strength streamed through his limbs. He knew he did not have to get up and that this was a surge of the noxious gas of talent that had long been pent up in his putrid, dilettante balls. It was a story of two brothers, of two Mexicos that bled in different ways, of a people that found a way out in fleeing the country and living at odds with the law. This time, it was as if he knew everything about Pablo, and he remembered the night Pablo spared his life and let him slam Dulcinea, and he recalled his wild laughter as he followed their movements. The tunnel, the subsoil, and brother Ignacio—Febo saw all this in front of him as clear as day, and the letters flowed together. A third hour of feverish typing passed without him getting up. Tiny had long since gone and left an open bottle of CS water. When thirst finally forced him to get up and have a drink, he decided to go to the fridge and treat himself to a limited series of Evian that he kept for a special occasion. Febo had no idea what that might be—the circumstance that would lead him to open such a precious bottle—until that moment. He knew he had hit on the mother lode of the story and that his life would no longer be the same. Here now he had firm evidence that this delight was not the preserve of failed writers who go to bed starry–eyed with a glory that is gone again in the morning. Febo was familiar with those frustrated awakenings. But this time everything came to him during the day, and his name finally became a sign: Febo, Phoebus, the sun god. He only needed to write in the mornings—he was not made for nightly buttbanging and speedballs under his tongue. He was not a sallow vampire but a fiery ball entering the psyche of a great criminal. He took a sip of the water. As it ran down his gullet it tasted of a mountain stream that the sacred coca plant had forded, leaving the imprint of freshness in his lungs. He inhaled that water, snorted its drops, and continued writing.
A special task force burst into Febo’s room—a cubicle in a dilapidated motel at a radish farm on the American side of the border. Twenty hi–tech Neanderthals surrounded the writer, who at that moment was presumably at the height of his prowess. He was no longer an ink–smeared henchman of the mafia, a hack who showered the local papers with third–rate articles and anonymous letters to the editor praising the cartels. The moment he transcended his paltry job as editor of Dulcinea Stratocastor’s invitation cards, just when he realized he had the strength to fleece her and make her pay for a chunky tome about her glorious husband, Febo fell in a major raid by the federal government.
He did as he was ordered and lay on the floor. A boot pressed down on the region of his upper vertebrae, where he felt a pain from sitting. They pulled his arms behind his back, making his head automatically move upwards, and one of the balaclava’d men used this to put a black hood over his head. The operation to arrest the writer and his bottle of mineral water lasted ten seconds. Before leaving the premises, the special task force sealed the room until the next team arrived.
The documentation of the case, which was to become the basis for an FBI writ, was later extended to include the impressive seventy–seven pages of text that Febo had turned out that morning without suspecting that the tranny named Tiny, who had gratified him and not insisted on a morning chat, was actually the special agent Denis Shapiro, née Jiménez, beloved of the local press for being the first transgender police officer, before she dyed her hair, had her lips made fuller, and started working as an insider.
A range of sex toys were found in the room of unfortunate Febo, who quite predictably compensated for his writer’s complex with erotic fantasies. The motel owner swore he had no idea what had been going on. He had a small head, and when the blood rushed to his face he resembled a radish. He repeated that he knew nothing and said that Febo the writer lived alone and had not had any visitors. The duty policeman lethargically recorded the statement, aware that the case was in the hands of the federals, who mercifully permitted the local police to do all the nitty–gritty: the mopping up after the arrest and the finding of drugs or a trail leading to the pimps so as to further blackmail Febo. But Febo did not need blackmailing. Everyone they asked him about from then on was one of his literary heroes, and he serenely awaited his sentence without begging for mercy and redemption for his sins. As cool as a bottle of water from his dreams, he waited for them to send him to a cell and could only think about one thing: a pencil, in return for which he would tell them everything they needed to know—an ordinary pencil with a graphite core that would allow his confession to take the form it deserved. Who was Febo, why had he been arrested, and who were these people? Everything was crystal clear to him and at the same time strangely slow and exact, as if he had put some drops of acid into his bottle of Evian—something he often did in the past, praying for a trace of soul he could write about. For the police he was just Dulcinea Stratocastor’s lover, a twerp of a provincial journalist and the one chosen to sing. He felt he could talk for hours about the night he saw death in the eyes of Pablo Stratocastor and write about him falling to his knees instead of killing Febo together with his unfaithful wife. He could hatch a story that went all the way back to the days when Pablo left home and swore to burn his native village to the ground. Febo had the drama in his fingers at the very moment the drama began to unravel in his life. He thought it was a fair exchange and did not despair. He sat there calmly and drank the water from the dispenser in the federal prison’s cellar. The taste of the water was new to him. Febo waited for a pencil to write it down.
BRANO MANDIĆ was born in 1979. He has written a short-story collection, Febo Waited for a Pencil (2016), and co-founded the publishing house Yellow Turtle (Žuta kornjača). He is one of the most widely read columnists in Montenegro.
About the Translator:
WILL FIRTH was born in 1965 in Newcastle, Australia. He studied German and Slavic languages in Canberra, Zagreb, and Moscow. Since 1991 he has been living in Berlin, Germany, where he works as a freelance translator of literature and the humanities. He translates from Russian, Macedonian, and all variants of Serbo-Croat. His website is www.willfirth.de.