Our Prayer

Were he to open his eyes now, Paul Castor wouldn’t be able to tell whether he’s drifted, or how far. Head dangling off the nose of his board, he can hear the sighs of the water flowing past his ears, sloshing in the space between the rounded fiberglass and the curve of his back; can feel the hair on his scalp swirling out into a shape that, were it viewed from above, would resemble a wreath. A near-digested breakfast of cheerios and orange juice rolls in partial harmony with the tide beneath, and his chin juts upward as he belches vigorously. Castor attends neither the thin pool of water evaporating on his abdomen, nor the faint, almost subconscious pain of unabated exposure to early-morning sunshine. The air is motionless, and he imagines a sensation like perfect stillness. He thinks of a burial at sea, of pre-Columbian tribes interring their dead in huge ocean-faring canoes; half-dreams of himself as interred in one, moving serenely and purposefully among tall ships and glaciers, underground rivers and violent inland seas; dissolved in the bosom of a thundercloud, scattered in snow.

Between sleep and wakefulness out here from moment to moment, Castor forces his eyes open and draws breath deeply, turns on his belly and begins paddling back toward the breakwater and the shores of Giacondo Beach—the largest in the town of Comanche, CA—where by now five or six other surfers are queued up for the last scraps of the morning’s meager high tide. Resigned, he slides almost furtively off the board and into the low trench just before the shallows. Eyes open as he dives downward, the water is mud-colored and profoundly cold: darkness free of direction. From his left ankle, Castor feels the tug of his bungee leash pull him back towards the surface. He lifts gradually and emerges, slick and inhaling powerfully, then taking up the board and making his way across the beach toward the lifeguard tower where he’s left a duffel of dry clothes.

There’s a spigot near the steps at the edge of the sand, and he washes off the grit caked on the soles of his feet and around his ankles, then walks up the steps onto the boardwalk. From there he recognizes Bill’s pickup and walks gingerly, barefoot, across the pavement to where his friend is parked. Bill is smoking a cigarette with the music turned up, looking impatient and tapping his left wrist when Castor approaches, as if he should have been expected. He turns the music down and leans his head out the driver’s side, and they exchange loose greetings. Castor’s hair is still wet, and he puts his surfboard and his soggy bag into the bed of the truck. Bill wears sunglasses and Castor can’t tell where his friend is looking when he climbs into the cab. He has sun-bleached blonde hair that he wears short, and his face and forearms are covered in freckles.

You must be going for the record, Bill says as they pull away, and Castor notices beads of perspiration forming on his forehead. Bill’s shirt, a cream-colored button-down, is already beginning to soak through with sweat. What record might that be, asks Castor, but Bill has already turned the music back up, making a quick left to take them downtown. The morning sun has risen well in the sky and the storefronts there roll past in high relief. Loudly, Castor asks where they are going, but there’s no reply, and Bill just squints and leans forward over the steering wheel where the sunlight makes a tonsure on his head. You smell like a dead fish, Bill says. Are you going to wash that off, or are you going to walk around all day like that? Castor ignores him and slumps on the truck’s bench, blowing air gently out from between his lips and watching the sidewalk and the sway of palm trees waving their muted and eternal farewell. Gradually, the volume of the engine erases whatever lingered in his ears of the sound of the ocean. For two weeks now he has been seventeen years old, and the world in that time has seemed changed—magnetized and alive with whispers like promise and he has waited for their words.

 

They come to the other side of town and stop the car on a quiet street that runs along a park and a municipal playground, and walk together down a pathway through the trees towards some buildings on the other side. On the playground they can see two young boys—not yet of school age and oddly unsupervised—pushing one another on the swing set. Castor watches one swinging higher and higher, wheeling upward above the latticework shadows of the tree line. The child laughs at first and then, growing frightened, softly begins to cry. The two men pass without comment, the small amazement at the coolness of such places in the summertime coursing through each of them.

On the opposite side of the park is the Sphinx, a refurbished multiplex and the only movie theater in town, whose chalky, sandstone facade and geometric patterning exude something more like a crudely-interpreted Moorish homage. Inside, there is a new coolness, something closer to that of a museum or a storage facility. The large, windowless atrium has a dingy, vaulted ceiling with violet felt curtains hanging down the walls. Between vending machines and antiquated, box-shaped arcade games are blown-up, high-contrast photographs of studio-era Hollywood stars. The images are all of the same dimensions, and some of them have been distorted or awkwardly cropped in the enlargement process. Their expressions are various and enigmatic: some of rage or surprise, others of anguish, hypnosis, possession, and in a handful—perhaps no more than one—the unmistakable image of supernatural calm. Castor recognizes none of them.

The doors are unlocked but there aren’t any screenings at the moment, so no one stops them from walking through the corridor of theaters towards the area at the back of the multiplex, where a girl stands vacantly tending to a long glass case advertising popcorn and concessions. She wears a maroon long-sleeved polo shirt that fits too loose and seems to tangle her up like a blanket might a restless sleeper. Near her heart is a pin with the name Nora printed on it. We’re not technically open for another half-hour, she says, surprised but friendly. This popcorn is free if you want some though. It’s from last night. She has straight, sandy blond hair, and her features have the sharp smallness of a bird. There’s a shy deference in her voice, as if she’s reciting from a script.

Uh, we’re not here for that, Bill says, stepping closer to the glow of the counter and removing his sunglasses. I work for your boss, remember? Nora laughs and shakes her head, half-rolling her eyes. I didn’t recognize you with your friend, sorry. Yeah he opened up for me about an hour ago. He should be upstairs. Bill starts up again at a hurried clip, offering no thanks, not waiting to dwell on the small embarrassment. Castor follows along a step and a half behind, glancing over at the girl as she sprays blue cleaning solution on the glass countertop and swings a rag across its surface in quick, circular motions. She is pale and looks a little older than him. The image of a beautiful woman on a section of the wall behind her—whose hair is trimmed short and who wears a long fur coat—hangs, ghostlike, in the half-light of the gallery.

At the top of the stairs, they find a waiting area and a window into another room where a squat and ancient looking man sits at reception. He wears a look of mild reproach as they walk in that Castor can only guess means he recognizes Bill. Castor begins to remember what Bill has told him about his job working for Mr. Salvatore in the year since his friend quit school, and understands without much thought that his job with this man has been—like the man himself—something of a mystery. Whatever business Bill is involved in—as an errand boy and chauffeur, occasionally a messenger—was never a concern to Castor, but there is a sudden trepidation about the present task. As they reach the office door—finished wood centered by yellowed pebble-glass—Bill makes a gesture to his friend as if to say, Let me do the talking and I’m sorry about this, both at the same time.

The first rush of natural light since they had come to the Sphinx disorients Castor and he wonders if they haven’t made a mistake and wandered into a forgotten corner of the place where some shrine might be kept. Salvatore is there though, bearded and immutable like a judge, flanked by banners bearing images of grave samurai and monsters from science fiction. He looks first to Castor and his expression transforms, from one void of insight, to that of someone satiated after small discomfort. Ah Bill, I see you’ve brought your friend, fantastic, he says and turns slightly and definitively to the other boy. Bill’s told me only the best things about you, Salvatore speaks as he shuffles through a suddenly conspicuous stack of manila envelopes of varying girth and hands one from the center of the pile to Bill. He pauses, and turns to no one so that when he begins to speak it’s as if to a camera: People have asked me for most of my adult life what the key is to being a successful individual in my line of work. And I tell them that there’s nothing more to it than knowing how to work with people. The truth is that people aren’t complicated; there’s a few things that everyone wants in life—sex, money, entertainment, health. Put yourself in a position where you can give somebody one of those things, or where you can take one of those things away from them, and you’ve figured them out. After that you can make them do anything. I make it a point to say that to every young person such as yourself that comes to my office, and I like to think I’ve taught your friend here something by saying it to him more than once. The mirth trickling out from his voice, he looks up again: It was so nice meeting you Paul. I’m really glad that you’ll be helping us out on this one. Remember that if I like what I hear, there might be more work in it for you. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to have a word with Bill privately.

Castor waits in a sagging fabric chair across the room from the silent, totemic receptionist and hears nothing of the conversation in Mr. Salvatore’s office. Bill opens the door shortly, sunglasses restored, carrying a thick manila envelope of the kind on his boss’s desk. On the way down the stairs, Bill, visibly relaxed now, peels back the metal seal on the envelope and peers inside while he explains what they are meant to do. It’s a hospitality job. We’re supposed to pick a guy up tomorrow night at the Veracruz Airport and take him around the town. Basically, he says, we take the guy out to dinner, then to a couple of bars. We do whatever he wants. If he likes pool, we shoot pool. If he likes cards, we find a game. He’s a client, and he’s in town to negotiate a contract. Mr. Salvatore says if we show him a good time it’ll soften his outlook on things the morning after. He asked me if I knew anyone who could come along and I said you would. And we have plenty of petty cash—there’s a bonus in for us too.

What made him ask for me? I don’t even know the guy, either of the guys.

It beats me. I mentioned you once or twice, how you like to surf. Maybe the guy we’re meeting likes surfing. Or maybe he’s a queer. Anyway, there’s no way we’ll be able to spend all this, Bill says and plucks an indeed impressive wad of $20 bills.

Now hold on, what’s him being queer got to do with me?

It’s possible that you’re missing the big picture here, pal, Bill says this time airing himself with a money-fan. Speaking of which, I noticed the exchange between you and the counter girl. Give it a shot, it doesn’t look like a waste of your time. Not exactly my type but you might get something out of it. Bill has successfully changed the subject: Castor is grateful that the glowing of his ears is undetectable in this light, sensitive as he is to his friend’s remark that, without any particular difficulty, has found him out. Bill detects the tightening of his friend’s countenance, and places a sympathetic hand on his shoulder. Take your time. I’ll wait in the car.

 

They make their date for later tonight—a few hours after her shift ends, at the same theater where she works. He is relieved when she suggests a crime thriller and not a romance. He tries to look in her eyes the whole time, and when he does he can see no trouble in them. Whether he has caught her by surprise, or whether she is simply being polite, he does not know and feels free of worry. He can hear the blood jumping through his head as he walks back through the park where the children were playing before; can feel a modest sweat trickling at his back where the sun beats down from its position at noon. Bill leans against the hood of the truck, smoking, when Castor returns, and doesn’t ask how it went.

They drive around for a while not saying much of anything. In the afternoon they have enchiladas at a cafe a few blocks away from the beach. Someone has left a newspaper at the table before them, and Bill turns to the section with the comics and reads quietly to himself, chuckling from time to time. He points to the page once, shaking his head, but never shows his friend what he is reading. Castor asks him about the man they’ve been hired to look after.

He’s a client, like I said. I don’t know anything else. I think he used to be an actor.

An actor like in he movies?

Yeah, I think he acted in a few of the movies that Mr. Salvatore produced back when he was still doing that. They may have been partners. I don’t know, you can probably ask the guy when you meet him.

Bill produces a red pen and amuses himself drawing details on the characters in the comic strips. In one strip, he draws mustaches on all the female characters, and then X’s over the eyes of all the male characters. In another, where the characters are all children, he draws an enormous red penis on each character, regardless of gender. At a certain point the smile drifts from his face and a look of intense concentration overcomes him; he focuses on producing the same curvature of his stroke for each shaft, the same flecks of pubic hair on each inflamed scrotum. In a third strip, he begins drawing new characters in the strips of his own invention; crude, gleeful, and moon-eyed, a part of an alternate universe in the world of the cartoon, invisible to the rest of them, like vampires caught in a mirror.

Their friendship is an odd one; since they were children, the closeness between Bill and Paul has always been more that of siblings near to one another in age than of people with much in common. From when they first knew one another, and now more than ever, Bill has always exuded an inflamed sense of ambition, a preexisting need to determine the circumstances of the world around him. Castor has watched his friend for years now, fascinated by the expedience and the animal optimism that for all their time together is still alien and opaque to him. Physically, Castor is the more imposing of the two, but Bill has never been shy about announcing the ease with which he assumed a sexual life. Bill doesn’t object to Castor’s quiet company, and would seem to have become somewhat reliant on it now, were it not for something Castor was certain he wasn’t being told about their assignment.

What kind of movies did Mr. Salvatore make when he was in the business?

Everything from what I could tell. Comedies, horror movies, westerns. Art house stuff too. It all went direct to video though, never even screens it in his own theater. The only thing he mentions a lot about is video distribution—he says that a million suckers every year try to get a movie made, and it’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears getting it done. But the money end is in distribution; if you can put up a little bit of cash up front as a producer, you can make a real killing on video sales.

Sounds like a real shit way to make a living.

Not if you play the angles right. Don’t get pushed around, what he says. The directors are the ones you can’t take shit from, he says. Even the schlock jocks think they’re Scorcese. Gotta let ‘em know where the money is, who’s the boss. If they short you, leave you in the lurch, you have to come back on them. Hard.

Castor can see a look of confused excitement in his friend’s eyes as Bill’s sunglasses slide down his nose, like a young boy watching a transaction between adults whose meaning surpasses his understanding. Bill pays for their meal. Castor takes his things from the back of the truck and they part ways as he heads toward the beach. Later on, he paddles out alone and the afternoon high tide is more consistent. The waves are fickle with him at first; he forgets their delicacy, paddles in too quickly or too tentatively, and they crumble beneath him before his head can climb above the foam. Soon though, he begins to move more freely, more sensitively, as if he could remember the water’s language and suddenly speak. The ride becomes his pattern of thought, and his thoughts take on the colors that he can see now in the water reflecting the variegating light that nevertheless fails to cast the sand any other shade than that of bone. The water is murky and refuses to yield his image as he paddles out again. After a long time his body registers signs of fatigue; the muscles in his shoulders begin to tighten, and his knees feel bruised from where he straddles the board. The day is over. He sits, half-sinking in the water thinking of nothing, and then the image of Nora’s face as it moves across the ghost of the woman in the theater—each one translucent and irradiated as if from behind, by some lantern.

 

His grandparents have gone to dinner early, and the house is deserted when he gets home. He leans his surfboard against the perforated cardboard wall over his grandfather’s workbench in the garage, and leaves his trunks and his undershirt in the basket next to the washing machine. While the shower warms up, Castor walks around the house naked, sipping a glass of milk and stopping to watch the television. His limbs are wiry; narrow, unfinished masses that seem to hang from the fibrous mantle of his upper chest, suspended. This is but one form. The specter of the television fills the room with a pale blue light and unnatural warmth. Mounted above the set and elsewhere in the living room are photographs of his family—his grandparents with him as a baby, their vacation to Disney Land, bodysurfing with his grandpa and later boogie boarding. From an early age, he spent too much time on the beach, in the water. A bright boy, he nevertheless neglected his schoolwork. His grandma never pressed him on the matter, believing that as long as his hair was wet when he came home that he couldn’t have been getting to much mischief. Most of the photos of his grandma are from when she was much younger and, from time to time, she’ll be holding a small baby girl with raven hair. Letting his eyes wander, he meets the gaze of his own mother through the reflective glare of the glass that protects another of her images—young there, not much older than he is now. From the distance between them he cannot feel much for her, not even a curiosity about the question as to her decision; how one chooses to die when it’s their own choice to make, how one dies for the sake of another that they cannot love because they will never know. She was well behaved, her mother tells Castor, the way he was and still is. Never a burden, no-how. The last light of day drains from the room and his eyes don’t resist the loss of the image. Her face is flat; it is not a space. He would plant himself there if he could, stretch out and let it continue through him, but something like a tide is lifting him ever upward and away and there again is the same distance between his face and the other, empty one. There go the thoughts he will not have.

 

They meet beneath the streetlight outside the ice cream parlor, and though they greet one another naturally, a long time passes before he can recognize her. Nora wears a red sundress patterned with small white flowers that appears faded as though it’s been washed too many times. She wears earrings of white gold, long and elliptical. He knows it’s foolish to be surprised that she’s changed clothes, that she isn’t wearing the same smothering maroon shirt. There is a peculiarity, a surprise about her beauty that awakens—someplace outside of him—a melancholy, as if he were embarrassed for her. They walk slowly, side by side, her hair taking on different hues as they pass beneath the lights here and there. She talks about her family; a brother in the army, a father whose recent health problems meant her withdrawal after a year and a half from college. Castor focuses on each of her words but cannot prevent them from slipping away from him. When the conversation passes to him, he knows that what there is to understand about him can be said in a few words: he lives with his grandparents, his mother died in childbirth, he has never known his father, his best friend Bill—more of a stranger to him every day—is his only friend, he loves to surf. He worries that what he has to say may sound unsubstantial, vacant. She asks him questions—platitudes, really, but they sound to him as if what he had said needed clarifying, as if some explanation were required. What he’ll only realize later is that she may be nervous too. He answers her—politely, enthusiastically even—but the things he speaks about seem to come from someone else. He feels simultaneously uneasy and bored. Relief comes when the Sphinx appears around the corner, and the two of them can be silent again.

The movie is called Ouvert pour cause d’inventaire (though it is in English), wherein a detective arrives at a small coastal town in what appears to be Portugal to solve a string of murders. The bodies are found by fishermen in the shoals, and the victims are dressed immaculately in flowing white robes; the actors and actresses enlisted to play the victims are some of the most beautiful people that Castor has ever seen—young, fair-haired, with the faces of angels. The cause of death is, at first, a mystery, as none of the bodies turn up with water in their lungs, nor do the victims show any sign of struggle. The detective takes up residence in the home of a young widow—the wife of the first victim to be discovered—and begins the meticulous catalog of evidence that, thoroughness notwithstanding, leads him nowhere. He is bewildered at first, then outraged as more bodies begin to wash up along the docks. Paranoia sets in. A chronic stomach ailment sidelines his investigation for a time, and the therapeutic walks he takes along the cliffs overlooking the beach illustrate some of the more moving qualities of the setting; a purgatorial place harried by storms that, despite its desolation, retains the vertiginous beauty of the natural world reaching towards oblivion. The singular image of this series is a solitary tree growing on the rainy beach, its roots extended deeply into the breaking waves. Somewhere in the midst of it all, Nora puts her hand in his.

There are scattered details that have the semblance of significant clues: a persistent fog on the shore that only fleetingly discloses a white fortress; the devout, paternalistic and quasi-fascist local police force whose surveillance of the widow verges on obsession; a Nepalese fisherman, gone mad from his time at sea, explaining a belief in the transmigration of souls as if it were a kind of cruel joke. Soon, however, the trail goes cold; the townspeople forget about the killings—even the detective’s commanders in the capital seem anxious to tie up loose ends and file away the murders away, unsolved. The lull in the case marks what the detective can only guess is the beginning of his early retirement, and he takes measures to settle down with the young widow whom, over the course of the investigation, has expanded her role in the detective’s life from hostess to confidante to lover. His stomach condition is slowly deteriorating, and through the detective’s interior monologue it becomes clear that he doesn’t have long to live. The young widow brings him a medicine that she promises him will take away his pain. The viewer is left to understand that the young widow, whose husband was a police officer himself, has been administering the same drug to the detective for much of his time in the village, dulling his forensic skill. In such heavy doses, the drug has the power to induce a euphoric, dream-like state. The local police, prepared to kill both the detective and the widow should the former stray too close to the truth about the murders—which itself remains a mystery—relax their surveillance and diminish into a star-punctured night. The widow has saved the detective’s life by, in so many words, destroying his mind.

Throughout the movie Nora moves closer, and at times she directs his hand behind her head, which she then places in the nape of his neck. Her breathing is steady and soft, and he does not remember when they begin to kiss. He would like to feel tenderness for her in this moment, something adult and concrete, a desire for something to change. Instead he feels slightly squeamish, clammy and inert as if grasping something tightly from within the depths of sleep. He mistrusts his body. He cannot fathom the science that could explain how pitiful this all feels to him now. He thinks of Bill, who describes his conquests with such verve, and considers that what was so impressive all along was that his friend had the stomach to go through this willingly, endlessly.

Shortly, it becomes something rehearsed and mechanical, though not unpleasant. She responds to his hesitancy, careful not to announce with her body language that she senses his inexperience. Nora is curious about this lonely boy, who looks like something fragile and built for life on some other, kinder planet. She is startled by his comportment: simple, unreflective. Still in touch with her boyfriend at school, she’s talked with him from time to time about moving in together, but he doesn’t visit with any regularity. She imagines herself anticipating the visits of this boy—almost a child—at the dreary theater, someone to dress nicely for; someone to displace the persistent, soiled feeling that the Sphinx’s puerile owner leaves after each advance. She hasn’t paid close attention to the movie, but what impression she’s left with of the detective is that of an artist; an artist describing life in its purity, brushing closer and closer to some central fact of that life until the two become indistinguishable.

They leave through an emergency exit at the back of the theater that Nora knows will not set off any alarms. The parking lot that curves around the building has no fence to obstruct a course through a cemetery that, for the darkness, seems to stretch unspeakably. In the distance they can see the reservoir, ovoid and still, giving back the luminous, trembling forms cast down by an elevated highway still further out. They think together, woozy with a menacing lustfulness and move stiltedly, like zombies, towards the obscurity’s center. A periodic heat moves through the open in waves, pushing them closer to one another and roaring in a way that seems only to compound the dome-shaped silence all around.

There are some briars growing alongside a slender, unadorned mausoleum and they sit down nearby to get out of the wind. They begin to kiss awhile, and his hands move mechanically again to where she doesn’t stop them. A warm gust twists through the briars that bow low and scratch lightly at the flesh on her shoulders and neck. Nora’s hair circulates wildly, dancing in a kind of nimbus around her head. Around the edge of her thigh, she follows his hand with her own. He smiles and relents: We probably shouldn’t. She smiles back, feeling neither frustration nor relief.

A shared dizziness passes and, grinning, they begin to talk—conversation turns to the job Castor’s been enlisted for tomorrow night. Nora knows nothing of her boss’s business; the other employees at the Sphinx are mostly geriatrics and substance abusers. With the exception of the weekend crowd, there’s hardly any business; from the outside, the theater looks like a money pit. The proprietor’s associates, however, generally appear dangerous—jackal-eyed men with absent expressions, hungry and hypnotized. She thinks of wild mercenaries packing their cheeks with hallucinogenic grasses that make them dream of different names for themselves and worship death. She thinks of this other man the actor, whom she imagines looks something like the lonely detective in the film, sick and unknowing. She worries at first only hypothetically: Don’t go, she says, to no one in particular at first. He is listening. She thinks to herself that he hardly does anything but listen, really. You don’t work for him, not yet you don’t. You shouldn’t go. Don’t go.

They sit quietly for a while, Nora’s head on his chest while Castor runs his hands gently through her hair. Each stroke is made to coordinate with a careful rhythm that he listens for in the faint but discernable sound of the ocean not more than a mile away. He doesn’t know what to make of this sudden concern, this unprecedented closeness. The sound unfolds over the low echo of Nora’s words, recurring to the point of senselessness, or to the point of a movement through one sense towards another sense, a hidden sense. It is a sense like prayer: Don’t go. Don’t go. He imagines that the confluence of these sounds as identical to that of the passage of air through the branches of a tree like the one on the beach in the film he has just seen. It stands, defiant and deeply rooted in poisonous sand, bending beneath a phantasmagoric sky, closer and closer through the passing centuries towards its shimmering, mercurial twin.

***

When their first and only son was born in a village outside Asunción, the parents of former actor Agustín Barrios named their boy after his great uncle, the famous Paraguayan classical guitarist Agustín Barrios-Mangoré. Aside from his virtuosity, which was met with the acclaim of all of Europe during the first and only tour he made through the continent near the end of his life, Barrios-Mangoré is remembered as the first solo guitarist to record any of his compositions professionally, which he did first in 1909 and then sporadically as cost would permit up to his death in 1944. In 1912, the guitarist found himself the subject of no small scandal when, on a tour through Brazil that included stops in rural parts of the country (where ostensibly Christian residents instead worshipped a plethora of minor ancestral gods and spirits, the most potent and wicked of which were believed to command spells meant to control or destroy the ability to speak) he began to perform with accompaniment by a recording of himself playing and occasionally singing. The skill and the speed of his hands, combined with the incorporeal nature of his assistance—an idea originally proposed by his manager as a way to save money and, ironically, to attract publicity—compelled a particularly stunned audience to presume that he was an emissary of one of their more powerfully malevolent gods. The duration of Barrios-Mangoré’s tour through Brazil was beleaguered by the infamy of his ‘heathen music’ as it spread through the countryside, and the combination of poor concert sales and a number of death threats was sufficient for the guitarist to cancel the remainder of the tour and return to Asunción, opting out of his contract with his promoter under the terms of a provision regarding ill health.

What is regularly overlooked of Agustín Barrios-Mangoré in contemporary scholarship (to the extent that it exists to any respectable degree) is that he was an avid mountaineer and topographer, and would often bring his guitar into the more remote villages and outposts of the Andes on expeditions. There, he learned traditional folk compositions from the locals that had survived the earliest colonial conquests by the Spanish. Accepting from time to time the hospitality of his Andean counterparts, Barrios-Mangoré—who rarely managed to get to sleep because of the scarcity of oxygen at such altitudes—would look for prolonged periods of time from his window or (if he could manage it without disturbing the people who had taken him in for the night, many of whom were poor scrub farmers or goat herders and rose before the sun was up) from the grassy edge of a precipice at the milky contours of snow-covered mountains as they were framed by the yawning firmament. It is known that he enjoyed a brief acquaintance with the English occultist Aleister Crowley, himself a mountaineering enthusiast; apparently the latter was on a climbing trip in Peru during the guitarist’s tour through Brazil and decided to travel to meet the man after his last summit. In his private journal (confiscated by government police during the dictatorship of Paraguayan military dictator Alfredo Stroessner, who maintained power between 1954 and 1989) Barrios-Mangoré describes his admiration for Crowley, and details an encounter in which the renowned magician offered an introduction to the teachings of the Golden Dawn, which the guitarist—deferring to his Christian faith—politely declined.

Elsewhere in this same notebook are his topographical sketches—remarkable for their meticulousness, displaying an almost primordial understanding of the Andes on a local level that is unaccounted for by what historians know about his educational background (he studied as a physician in Ascunción for two years before withdrawing into music full-time)—which predate aerial photography in the region, and were of considerable use to Stroessner’s air force, several decades later, for the purposes of scanning small valleys in search of resistance strongholds, in strikes led by the dictator’s son Gustavo, an alleged homosexual. Early in his air campaigns, Gustavo was baffled by these drawings, stemming from the fact that—the pilot’s gross incompetence notwithstanding—each sketch had been, in effect, made twice. The guitarist, perhaps anticipating that nearly twenty years after his death, his labor of love would be put to the most evil of purposes, had made identically-labeled sketches on facing pages with radically different features. Gustavo eventually discovered (not without taking losses in his squadron, initially) that one sketch from each set was the ‘correct’ one, though from among the hundreds of pairings he could never detect a coherent pattern or any clue as to which one was to be trusted. Later on, after the fall of the dictatorship and the brief resurgence in popularity that Barrios-Mangoré’s music enjoyed in Paraguay, it was postulated by historians and speculative fiction writers that the ‘incorrect’ sketches were not incorrect at all, but instead actually constituted acoustical topographies of the ranges in question, as if during the course of his adventures—perfectionist that he was—Agustín Barrios-Mangoré were planning every last detail of a tremendous concert event, searching the mountains for a place where his music would echo off the surfaces of the cliffs in perfect resonance with the natural world, for eternity or as long as anyone could be expected to listen.

 

His was the great misfortune of being a better impersonator than actor, or such was the diagnosis of his director on the set of his first film. Consequently, the actor Agustín Barrios has always lead a life somehow not quite his own. His aspirations as a screen actor in Hollywood are best forgotten: at the time, and more or less to this day, it was virtually impossible for a non-Caucasian to find consistent work in American film. Barrios’ complexion is the color of caramelized sugar, the faint but irrefutable sign of a Mestizo in North America. At first, he contented himself with a modest salary as a recurring character in a soap opera syndicated by most of the Spanish-language networks in the Southwest, and enjoyed a minor celebrity in the immigrant communities of California, Arizona and New Mexico for three or four years before the show was finally cancelled. Strapped for cash and unwilling to return home, he began working on the set of non-union productions as a sound engineer and cameraman (he had little or no idea how to do either, but the video equipment functioned mostly intuitively and no one seemed to notice even the most major indications of ineptitude). He knew that some of the people struggling like him made a quick buck starring in pornographic films; still others turned to hustling on the street. Most of the latter were supporting drug habits, and he was cautious not to fall into a pattern of behavior that he worried would affect his future. On a whim and nearing the end of his rope, he spent $15.50—no small sum for him at the time—on a bus ticket to Grapevine to attend a free actors’ workshop. It was there that Barrios was discovered by the filmmaker Anton Kotz—the man who offered that first bit of advice—and his producer at the time, Ronald Salvatore.

Over the next two years, Barrios became one of a string of consistent collaborators in the films made by Kotz and the handful of other directors associated with Salvatore’s studio, best known under the name Passive Radar. Among the seven films he starred in, Barrios had leading roles in Engine Falls and Patterns of Speech playing roughly the same stoic and vaguely mystical character. When Passive Radar fell apart, Barrios went into the production business with Salvatore. Their estrangement as business partners a few years later was the reason for his visit today, his first to the West Coast in nearly five years. Specifically, Barrios, who fell out with Salvatore shortly after accepting a loan of several thousand dollars from the man, returned now to make amends, and to ask for more money.

 

On the curb outside the airport, Barrios sits on his suitcase with a paperback, looking up occasionally for a sign of his retrievers, and watching for the wobbling glow of a departing aircraft’s fuselage as it catches the light of buildings from below. Even if his plane landed in Veracruz ahead of schedule, they’re still late, and when they arrive it’s as if they’ve appeared from a cloud of smoke. If he hadn’t seen it run, Barrios would have guessed the pickup truck they drove up in had been dragged from the bottom of a lake. Two men are inside—they’re boys, really; wispy things with dark visages and a look of slouched cruelty like child soldiers—and when they stop, one helps him inside while the other puts the bag in the truck’s bed. Ron hadn’t mentioned there’d be two of them. As they set out, the one that introduced himself as Bill asks if he’d like to get a drink before they go to the hotel. How about some dinner? he asks. Bill mentions a diner a few towns over, and without waiting for his guest’s response, hangs a U-turn at the light outside the parking lot and thunders northward.

At the diner, Barrios orders a stack of pancakes, a glass of orange juice and a cup of coffee. It’ll be morning in New York soon, he jokes limply, and unfolds the paperback from his pocket again. Bill and the other one, named Paul, begin to talk: mostly the former, who is apparently the more accommodating of the two—jovial, loquacious, and immature. In a wrinkled green blazer and the only moth hole-free button-down he owns, Barrios feels (and looks) as if he were the father of these two boys, divorced and with partial custody, taking them out for a weekly dinner. Bill is goading Paul, asking him about some girl. As the latter clams up, a small affection for the boy wells in Barrios not unlike the mixture of emotions he would concoct for himself as an actor in order to manipulate his performance. There is something about him that he recognizes; not just a likeness, but a sort latent nobility that Barrios has encountered only a few times before in his life. Vague shapes and the faces of loved ones, both real and fictional, drift through the field of his consciousness and align over the image of Paul Castor, and the former actor is overwhelmed in a moment out of which he must wake himself.

Refreshed from the coffee, Barrios acquiesces to Bill’s insistence that they get a drink of something stronger. They take the highway through a desolate patch of inland desert where all along the western edge of the road, the placid skeletons of oil derricks rise up in rows highlighted by red and orange lights, looking like the ruins of some robot world. No more than an hour in this place and Barrios is already feeling the gravity of his return, as if he were passing through sacred ground or the realm of some past life; the sense of a constantly-renewed destiny, of ceaseless forward motion and palpable trajectory. He realizes that it is something close to sadness, and here now with these young men he wonders why it has taken him so long to understand that he is not like them anymore.

The place where they are headed is an old biker bar, a roadhouse with a sawdust floor and an anachronistic showcase stage at the back. A five-piece country ensemble collects there, milling through one song after another, each dirge-like and indistinguishable from the one before. The regulars are indifferent, drinking and playing pool not just casually but emphatically. The band’s fondness for blues affect edges, Barrios notes, towards a terminal depression. He thinks of his great uncle, and of listening to his records at family gatherings but, drinking now and more exhausted from his flight than he realized, the emotions are adrift and beyond his recall. Bill plays darts with a few young women on the other side of the bar. Paul sits nearby but says nothing. Alone, Barrios grows uneasy. He thinks of tomorrow’s meeting with Ron; he wonders if he can manage a dignified apology, leaving aside the new loan he must insist upon if he’s to keep his own small company afloat. They parted ways under no uncertain terms, but Barrios knows he could’ve been flatly refused or been offered a buyout over the phone. That he agreed to the meeting has to mean something. Still, he’s heard the rumors; of a rapid degradation of empathy or mercy in the business dealings of Ronald Salvatore; of that degradation’s inverse relation to coercion, intimidation, violence. Reaching for the cigarettes in his inside blazer pocket, his hand brushes across the leather holster of the .38 he keeps strapped along his ribs—a mixture of occupational hazard and old habit that he has carried since bandits robbed the set of The Parts of Speech at gunpoint and even shot a lighting engineer (though he lived). The thing is decades old, and he has grown accustomed to its feel such that sometimes he forgets he’s wearing it. The time spent with his handlers and the erosion of his suspicions through imbibing leaves him in the mind that at least these idlers are not his assassins.

The bartender corrects him as he moves to light one up: it seems this place has changed along with the rest of the world. Alone in the parking lot he holds the smoke in his lungs and glances at the amorphous light reflected from car to car. He walks aimlessly away and down the road for a minute or two. In the distance, from the side of the road, is a moment in space where the desert changes to low bluffs that bristle with row upon row of mountainous trees. He wonders how far out of their way they have gone, if—should he need to—he could find his way back to the city. The glassy twilight has no revelation for him. Describing his experience after the incident, the lightning engineer noted that the noise of the shot was what startled him first—that the pain came later. For Agustín Barrios, instead, the sound and the pain occur together and within one another as apart of the same incandescent phenomenon, spinning outward from a center somewhere near his right shoulder blade. He buckles, reeling from its gravity, and does not cry out. He hears another shot, and another, but they are apart of a different world than the one he remembers—a world in which it seems he has always lived, of asymptotic pain rushing closer and closer towards abstraction. A third finds the flesh of his upper groin and what to him is the certainty of waking from a dream is actually the mind abandoning itself, of the seizure of his body by another, more profound twilight.

 

When Bill moves to follow Mr. Barrios out of the bar, Castor trails his friend from a distance. When he rounds a curve in the darkness, Paul loses sight of him, after which time he hears the shots. Castor is careful not to run, understanding nothing of who has shot whom or why. Presuming an accident, he begins to shout his own name; uncertainly, at first, and then with more force. When he arrives in the clearing where the two figures have stopped, he finds Bill squatting on his haunches and tracing his finger along the chrome of a handgun Castor at first thinks can’t possibly be his. Somehow, he is totally calm, and can think only of taking the situation’s inventory:

Is that his gun? Are you hurt?

Do I look hurt? Bill sneers.

Who shot him?

I did, I guess. Unless he just had a heart attack from all the noise. I couldn’t really see where I was aiming.

Castor walks over to the second form, more discretely prostrate: Barrios is half-sprawled over himself, unconscious but breathing. He cannot see the blood collecting in the bound fibers of his shirt or his slacks, but Castor can imagine it and winces as he leans to check the man’s vitals.

He’s still breathing. I think we should call an ambulance.

He’ll be dead by the time they come for him.

You sure about that? Castor doesn’t know yet that he’s fighting a sort of indignation, and will soon have forgotten it.

Sure am. I hit him in the gut, didn’t I? I’ve seen the movies. You die from that.

You said you didn’t know if you had hit him at all.

Well didn’t I?

I’m not sure. It’s too dark for me to tell.

Shit, well I’d shoot him again but I think I’m out of bullets.

I’m going for an ambulance.

But Bill isn’t paying attention anymore, moving his eyes back to the article dazzling in his hand and throwing open the cylinder and spinning it before his eyes.

You’d better get rid of that thing, Castor says as he begins to jog back to the roadhouse, noticing only then that he is coated in sweat.

 

In such pain—severe, life ending—the body reorganizes itself. Lying in the clearing, unconscious, in clothes growing heavy and matted with the weight of his own coagulated blood, Agustín Barrios no longer has a mind. That mind has been replaced by the unconcealed fact of death. Illuminated, the fact’s light inscribes its code upon the fibers of his body—each inscription in its totality—so that what was once an organism is now a golem, a thanatotropic machine of a different order from what the two boys might call life if you were to ask them. It is this inscription that moves Barrios’ right arm around his side towards the undisturbed, fully loaded .38 caliber pistol, that manipulates the fingers that remove the safety, that extends the arm and instructs the thumb to cock the gun’s hammer, and finally to let the dead man’s eyes fly wide open. By now Bill has wiped his own gun down and pitched it into the woods, and stands not close to the body but near enough and in the cone of light that delineates what can only be called the dead man’s field of vision, so that when the golem raises up its weapon there isn’t even the time he would have had to defend himself. The single bullet describes a long parabola through the leftmost corner of Bill’s forehead, and had a sole witness been there they’d have taken an oath that they saw the life jump from the boy in the blossom of smoke that lingered there for an instant and was gone.

***

The sky over Comanche, CA gleams in its emptiness near dusk. All along the pier, the sunlight makes a canyon of the shops and stands and the shadows they cast, and the painted polyurethane moldings over the steel chassis of amusement rides all take on an aura of red gold. From the spaces between the planks on the boardwalk, the noise of the tide drifts upward sustaining a sound in the air above like flight.

Splayed out among the sand, leaning on elbows or squatting on the balls of their feet, damp and panting, the surfers of Giacondo Beach dwell for the last hour of sufficient sunlight along the shore in vigil. It is the same on every beach in this part of the world, and every other part where time passes easily for the worshipper that is most willing. This is what they share; many would never know one another but for this devotional cord that seems to penetrate and bind them all, as sure as there has always been an expression of childhood which is primordial and outside of time. So they sit and they wait for sunset, for the light of this life to shine elsewhere, for the lantern to pass them by and the spell to break, to return to their families or their jobs or their obsessions or their solitude or their sadness. For them the beach will always be here: here in Comanche, here in Libertad, here in Byblos, here in Kilwa Kisiwani.

Amidst a wing of constantly turning blue, they watch the last of their number collude, repel and fall slowly away from one another. Some crouch low on their boards like shipwrecked sailors. Others, further out, toss themselves high over the foam fringes of prematurely cresting waves. Expressionless faces flash with an elemental joy, a laying-bare of sentiments in reverence of the grandeur and the shape of this: a renewed encounter with the transfixing strange. The darkness grows, and to the last few in the water their fellows on the beach watch as if from within the threshold of an expansive natural amphitheater or beyond the membrane of a cloud. As a new crest emerges, the rider at the top of the order begins to paddle—a crawling motion evoking the earliest land-reptiles—and finally feels the water disappear from beneath the nose of his board. Mounting clumsily, he is nevertheless in the hands of the laws of physics, and drops into the curl with drunken abandon, letting the board’s seaward edge tear at the quivering, translucent skin that sprays brine up into his eyes. A thought—that the world could breathe and change beneath him—vanished as it appeared. Riding it to the shore, it is his only wave of the day.

The next wave fails to break—merely a low hill that rushes across the sandbar and moves across Paul Castor’s line of sight. From the shore, his bare back is visible, a thing glossy with the seawater that tumbles over him and the others like him with a relentlessness and atavistic fury that passes unnoticed among their kind. Hunched, his ribcage and the long bands of muscle across his back take on the definition of an anatomical illustration. Hair that the sun has turned nearly white hangs, uncut, in limp tendrils the consistency of seaweed. He positions himself six inches from the board’s stern, causing the nose to bob gently upward; now grabbing the water’s surface, now releasing it. His hands are placed preemptively in the water on either side of him, as he senses a new swell almost before he could see it appear about twenty meters out, growing in speed and slope. His motion does not break the rhythm of what is beneath him when he paddles in, snapping his body sideways and fishtailing to a 45° angle and rising up all as apart of the same physical event. When he takes the wave he is hardly visible to anyone on the shore.

In that series of endlessly recurring moments Castor might live whole other lives. Nothing leaves him, but even these have decayed: their forms share images and parts, augmenting and fusing into terrifying composites flush with inscrutable meaning and power. The wave is already closing, cradling him, and he feels the rush of air escaping the narrowing chamber where he hopes to remain. The men and women on shore forget what they have seen and dissipate.

Tumbling downward towards the trench, his eyes are accustomed to the darkness and they search out its bottom. A procession of features, faces, names—all disappeared—turn towards him, void of content like Attic masks, or perhaps like the elaborate and grotesque features of the same mask, as it is viewed from afar and then draws nearer. He dives deeper, where its gaze cannot reach, and where the music of its voice—a sound not unlike the music of Agustín Barrios-Mangoré—at length grew silent. The weight of Castor’s body and the velocity of his plunge has capsized his board and brought it down with him by the leash: a bungee threaded through surgical tubing, that hesitates to break the fidelity of the Velcro cuff around his ankle. Undaunted, Castor senses a moment at hand still hidden, that waits in the bosom of the earth. Surrounding him are the things in their bareness for which he has become the conduit, and he sees them clearly. The cuff that will open or not open, the bungee that will tear or not tear, are apart of that face and its emptiness—forgotten. Hands extended, he lingers streamlined, wanting to reach down and dig his fingers into the icy, clay-like floor, to take root and await transformation into a strange submarine tree, to listen intently and in peace to the vast silence, until some spirit awakes him.