Dog in the Hole

It’s me. I’m the one Pardo calls Saint Che, patron saint of lost causes. For example, justice in Paraguay, lost if ever a cause was. This is how my mind works: I can’t help understanding how Pardo’s mind works. Don’t think of it as sympathy, it’s more twisted than that. Pathology is more like it. A pathology of the impotent oppressed: I like the sound that makes in my head. In bed, in the dark, I frequently unbecome myself in order to inhabit Pardo’s diseased imagination. A crimson place it is, walls the color of Hell, and richly deserved. I’d give anything to stop going there.

When the last lawyer waved a sheaf of court papers in his face, it finally dawned on Pardo: It was San Che setting him up. Him, Pardo, the last of the old guard. Because his memory threatened them, he remembered what the so-called democrats were busy trying to forget. When Pardo went, the Stroessner era would be extinct. Exactly what they wanted. So they were trying to break him down. Torture, yes, but slowly, working on the complete man, not just his body. As a professional he admired their craft, but that didn’t mean he was going to fall into the hole they dug.

When the lawyer showed up cackling deposition, deposition, the lie shone behind the clouds in his eyes, and Pardo put two and two together. His mistake had been letting the lawyer in the door the first time he came to the house.

“You’re a minnow,” the lawyer told him during that first interview way back when. He was a hefty man who wore his weight like a suit he wasn’t going to bother altering even though it didn’t fit. His breathing was unhealthy. His pudgy hands talked nervously at each other, making Pardo think of a clown. “These people aren’t interested in minnows. What they want is for you to help them land the big fish. Cooperate in the right way—and I’m here to tell you what the right way is—and you’ll live out your days in peace.” I’ll do it, Pardo told him. String the lot of cowardly bleaters along, that was his idea, lead them to think he’d give them what they wanted: information, meaning a confession of guilt. Fat chance.

It was cold. There was a dog in the hole.

Of the several ironies not lost on me, this one amuses me most: in his sanest moment, few as they are, Pardo thinks I’m not real. He thinks he’s imagining me. Here’s another: sometimes, in the dark, I worry I’m imagining myself. Which would make Pardo the only real one, would it not? A train of thought not to be boarded.

Before calling the radio station, Pardo fortified himself with carulín, an old-time country drink made of cane whiskey with lemon and fresh rue. His mother used to believe carulín would keep the August cold from killing a person. Pardo knew better; his hands wanted something to do while he thought through his next move, that was all. And clear thinking was surely called for. He had to move cautiously. Someone, maybe San Che himself, would be monitoring the People’s Open Mike Tribunal. San Che: add an iron will to a chessmaster mind. In comparison, the rest were pawns, buffoons, incompetents. Pardo’s limbs prickled, and a current traced the shape of his backbone up and down, as though the man himself had come up behind him. Calling him San Che gave him an identity: a profile in shadow and something like a human face. Picturing his enemy made it easier for Pardo to stay one move ahead of him.

The woman with the scratched voice who called the radio every night might be in on the trap they were setting for him. She was old, as old as Pardo, and vindictive. What she wanted, in the time she had left on earth, was revenge. The fact was, Pardo had had nothing to do with what happened to her son. Not to say the kid didn’t deserve what he got. He was a subversive. If he’d lived, he would have murdered property holders.

It was also possible that don Mario, the open-mike show host, was on San Che’s payroll, but that was just a hunch. Just as likely they were using don Mario, and the garrulous fool none the wiser.

There’s a dog in the hole. Pardo said it, but he had no idea what he meant by it. He supposed his brain was acting up on him. At his age, any one body part was as likely to betray him as another.

He picked up the receiver but put it down again, distracted by the bananas in a wooden bowl on the kitchen table. In the perfidious light cast by the overhead, the fruit made a picture that startled him. To his ongoing surprise, Pardo had begun to crave beauty. In his active years, his work years, beauty was not something he considered. He never looked for it, which was the same as saying it wasn’t there. Now, he couldn’t seem to get through a day without the sight of it. The other night, for example, before he called the radio.

He’d stepped outside to take a leak and there was the moon in the branches of the papaya tree, the same shape as the fruit only brighter. In the old days, if anybody had tried to tell him the moon was shaped like a papaya, that it hung from a branch like an ornament on a Christmas tree dripping white light, he’d have laughed in his face. Not that anyone would have had the nerve to say a foolish thing like that to him. El Leopardo, they had called him in Investigations, punning on his name because he was as quick and as cruel as a big cat. Nevertheless beauty existed. The light was so bright it made his eyes tear.

The beauty of bananas notwithstanding, he called. “Don Mario? Le habla El Conejo Blanco.” Although it wouldn’t fool San Che, Pardo liked presenting himself as an animal the antithesis of the leopard he had formerly been.

“Lordy lordy, friends, it’s the White Rabbit. Our airwaves are graced with good fortune again tonight. You’ll want to say your piece, I suppose. You’re tuned to the People’s Open Mike Tribunal, so we’ll let you spout a little. But I’m warning you, nobody wants to listen to you rave about how good the bad old days used to be. Last time you called, our switchboard was jammed. I have to tell you, you make people angry. The dictator is gone, old man, and he’s not coming back.”

Don Mario had the perfect voice for late-night radio. It tugged at your shirt sleeve and whispered in your ear, pulled you down into the gutter of filth in which the man made his living. His voice was the grit that clogged the drain.

Pardo’s plan called for sending a message to San Che while sounding like a helpless old man. “We’re coming up on August first,” he said civilly.

“That we are, and on the heels of the coldest July in living memory. Now don’t go and tell me that the weather would have been better under Stroessner.”

“I was just thinking, I was wondering, really, whether it’s true.”

“Whether what is true? You’re not at your sharpest tonight, Mister White Rabbit. What’s eating you?”

“Does the cold on August first really kill off the old folks? That’s what I was wondering. Remember how people used to talk about their ninety-year-old grandfather being taken off at the stroke of midnight?” Pardo was weak and somewhat tired, but the gears in his brain still turned. He was fixing the date, drawing his enemy into the open. The only bait he had, worse luck, was himself.

“Where are you going with this?” don Mario wanted to know.

“I called to complain about the abomination.”

“Are you senile, is that it? What abomination? Democracy? Is that what you’re calling an abomination?”

“The statue in front of Palacio López.”

The radio man snorted like a winded horse, which convinced Pardo that he was being used. Don Mario had no clue that Pardo had just established the rendezvous site, in front of the presidential palace, where a depraved artist had in fact recently installed a travesty.

“Since you brought it up, why don’t you tell the listening audience your personal and private opinion of the Colombino statue?”

Why not say what he really thought? The coded essentials had been conveyed. San Che knew where to find him, and when. He allowed himself the pleasure of winding up on the subject of the sculpture. The artist had gotten hold of a statue of General Stroessner, hacked it into chunks, and reassembled the damage he did into an abstract monstrosity that offended an honest citizen’s eye. Arms and legs stuck out like tree branches. Worse, he had installed it in front of the presidential palace. It was like spitting in the face of the man who had held the gates of Paraguay against subversion for so many years, until treachery from within brought him down.

When he hung up the telephone, Pardo was exhausted in body and spirit. But he would not be broken. He was who he wasn’t. Anyway the neighbors bought it: a retired policeman, a widower, the unlucky father of three ungrateful children who never visited because they were ashamed of how poor the old man lived. People were curious and gossipy, but they were also shallow. What he gave the neighbors was enough to keep their little mills grinding.

Sending the lawyer with the threat of a deposition had been a smart move. Things were coming to a head. If they wanted to destroy him, surely San Che himself would show up to pull the trigger. When he did, Pardo would be ready with a surprise of his own.

I bet he doesn’t remember me. I bet if he saw me on the street in daylight, if he saw the scar, he would have no memory of cutting it into my face. Also, I bet I’ll know it, that I’m going to die, when I wake up the day it happens. Pardo gave me that, too: second sight. It works best in dark places.

The dogs were a brilliant idea, tactically speaking. One hundred thousand curs loose in the streets, and unless you understood the subversive mind you’d assume it was the inefficiency of city government that let them run free.

There’s a dog in the hole. You didn’t have to understand a thing to be terrified by it. That was another lesson he had learned on the job.

He looked out the front door into the street: half a dozen of them in a mangy, bad-tempered pack, sniffing and poking their ugly noses into the dusty grass and each other’s nether parts. As though they’d been trained to watch his house. Pardo knew better. There were limits to what you could accomplish training an animal. That’s why the numbers made sense. Put a hundred thousand of them on the streets and you were covered wherever you turned. But Pardo would not turn, nor would he be turned.

Then, shuffling to bed, memory ambushed him: 1976, a good year for Pardo’s side. They had discovered, detained, and debilitated an insurrectionary movement before it had a chance to do any damage. The President himself had shaken Pardo’s hand, told him his contribution to the cause of Paraguayan freedom was a large one even though his name would not be written in the history books. Pardo believed him because it was the truth.

August first. Not that he was superstitious. Only the country people believed the date was a death sentence on the oldsters. But it had been cold, he recalled, colder than Stalin’s heart on Christmas Eve in Siberia. Rain on the wind, which came up out of the pampas. Miserable weather, interesting work. High-level interest in a terrorist they were interrogating. Sapriza let them know this was a bad one, the file on the man half a meter high with the illegal things he was involved in. He’d been picked up coming over the border at Clorinda. False passport, handgun, telephone numbers in a notebook, the whole bit. They roughed him up some, nothing serious. He made a lot of noise, but he was one tough son of a bitch. Pardo had never seen a tougher man hanging from the meat hook.

It was beauty that turned aside the memory wave. In his bed, upright as a soldier, Pardo focused on the plaid pattern of the spread his wife had picked out thirty years ago. He had never appreciated its subtle interlocking of browns and blues, how they were linked by delicate filaments of white. He turned off the bedside lamp.

There was a dog in the hole.

A question for practical philosophers: what would I trade my hate for? What would be a fair exchange? If they ask, I have an answer ready: I’d give it up for the ability to stop inhabiting Pardo. Not a likely prospect.

San Che’s acceptance of the challenge was relayed by the woman with the scratched voice. Pardo tuned in don Mario every night. They played with him, made him wait until July 29. So be it. The signal, when it finally came, was unmistakable. She was talking about the dogs in the streets of Asunción.

“It’s not safe to walk in the street,” she whimpered. “You set foot outside your door—I’m talking about the old folks like me, and the feeble, and the little children—and you as much as take your life in your hands. You call that civilized society?”

“I call it too many dogs running loose in the streets, that’s what I call it,” don Mario grumped.

Pardo tamped down his anger. Collaborators or pawns, it made no difference. They were at fault, they were to blame for the chaotic disaster they had made of the country.

“My heart is heavy tonight, don Mario,” she sobbed, but Pardo saw through her pretense. He waited.

“Why so low?” the radio man drew her out.

“Because I’m an old woman, and we’re coming up on the first of August. Everything is coming to an end, that’s what it seems like to me. And the butchers who tortured and killed my boy in prison under Stroessner are still free. They’ll stay free.”

Pardo turned off the radio with a slow snap. What he felt mixed satisfaction with dread. It was going to happen.

On the thirty-first of July he woke sick. He dragged around the house all day, impatient for the hours to pass. He cleaned and oiled his service pistol twice. Once, opening the front door, he was tempted to take a shot at the dogs in the street but held himself back. Killing a couple of hell hounds would alter nothing. Every couple of hours he drank a little carulín, just enough to take the edge off his illness.

That night, he took a bus downtown earlier than was necessary. Scoured by the cold, grainy wind he wandered the empty streets, which were empty except for the dogs. They were everywhere, single strays and roving in packs of five and six. Ugly. Scrawny. Their eyes were murderous. Even the way they cringed when they got close enough to kick was menacing. Thank God there were limits to the amount of training an animal could assimilate. They were brutes, after all. Pardo had no doubt they were only dumb brutes.

He found a hole-in-the-wall bar that was open and ordered a cup of coffee, which he drank slowly. The carulín had had the opposite effect on him from what he’d hoped. He was weaker than ever. His heart hammered, and the blood moved sluggishly in his arteries. He was dizzy, and a grubby sweat coated his body as chills attacked it.

So much bloody beef, the terrorist hanging from the meat hook. Be persuasive, they’d been told, but we need him alive. Make him sing and we bring down the whole organization. That was where the skill and the science came in: hurting him badly enough to destroy the spirit without killing the body. They’d taken a break. Pardo stayed behind. He was in a foul mood. His wife had decided she didn’t like being the wife of a policeman anymore. Just an excuse, really, to berate and belittle him; she was an expert.

The man on the meat hook was unconscious. His serene repose irritated Pardo. Filthy fucking communist, he said into his face. Funny how such things worked. The insult woke him out of his stupor, and he spat in Pardo’s face. Well. In a place like Investigations, that kind of thing was enough to provoke a saint. Well.

When he finished his coffee, Pardo looked at his watch. Quarter to midnight. Fifteen minutes away from the start of a day famous for dispatching old people to their grave. He walked slowly but purposefully in the direction of the Palacio López, in front of which stood the monstrous sculpture constructed with pieces of General Alfredo Stroessner Matiauda. An abomination. Filthy curs trailed Pardo as he went. There were dogs in the alleys, a dog in every hole.

He’d expected San Che to make him wait, and he did. The minutes after midnight moved like sleeping turtles. He uncapped a flask, a present a long time back from a commanding officer in recognition of Pardo’s diligence. The dose of carulín revived him. His confidence surged. He must have made a noise of some sort. Perhaps he hooted. That was what drew the soldaditos standing guard around the corner. Three of them came clattering in his direction, their wool ponchos flapping like wings, their old, reject rifles held clumsily in cold hands. Children, that’s what they were, too young to know which side they were on.

Regardless of whether they were ignorant pawns or low-level collaborators, he couldn’t risk being caught. He took off loping, heading for the honeycombed blocks of the old city, whose ins and outs he knew better than the boy soldiers would ever know.

“Hey! Old man! Slow down!”

He ran.

The farther he ran the weaker he got. Strength bled out of his body. When he reached the plaza in front of the Congress, he stopped to collect himself. He heard no soldiers coming up behind him, but that could have been because of the noise his body made. He breathed in painful barks, loud enough to wake the dead of every August first for the last thirty years. Funny: there were more shadows than there were trees to go with them. There had to be birds, crows most likely, roosting in the black branches of the eucalyptus trees, although they weren’t giving themselves away. Except for falcons and homing pigeons, birds could not be trained by human beings.

“Son of a whore lackey for Stroessner.” That was what the terrorist had called Pardo when he spat in his face. Pardo remembered the way the words hit him, like nails being driven into his face. The terrorist was asking for it. Begging, really.

When Pardo could move again, he hiked down behind the Congress to the poor people’s neighborhood along the edge of the river. The eyes of invisible crows burned holes in his back. Neither pawns nor collaborators, just hostile watchers. He didn’t know that part of la Chacarita all that well, but it was a good place in which to pretend to get lost. San Che would be thinking he was spooked, his only thought to get away. It was. It wasn’t.

La Chacarita too was full of dogs. Let loose a hundred thousand of them across a city, any city, and you were covered; sheer numbers accomplished what training could not. What Pardo wanted was to convey the impression that he was frantic, he was cornered. It helped that he really was frantic, on one level. But on a deeper level he was calm and in control. If his body had been younger it would have been easier, true. But he was not about to let an untrustworthy body force him into a stupid mistake. A mistake—in la Chacarita after midnight on August first, surrounded by packs of dogs and stalked by the man who wanted what Pardo knew—would be fatal.

A mistake to wind up in an empty cul-de-sac, a narrow dirt track between two brick-fronted warehouses. San Che would think he’d allowed himself to be cornered there.

The wind plunged from the sky to the channel between the two warehouses, blowing like a son of a bitch in his face. Sand stung him, and he smelled the river. Pardo had been lucky. If anyone up the chain of command had suspected he took hold of the terrorist’s head as he hung on the meat hook and snapped the neck the way you snapped a chicken’s, he would have caught hell. The dirty-mouthed subversive went to his grave with all his secrets intact, every last thing he knew about his organization perfectly protected. So be it. In Investigations, even good men were provoked; it was the nature of the work.

That was the night he learned about dogs, what they were capable of. Leaving the prison, he noticed the moon, which had a face like a kind uncle bestowing a gift of light, a present the likes of which a person like Pardo seldom received. Then, walking to the bus stop, he became aware of the dog following him. He turned to see a big, ugly, yellow hound with a long snout like a pig’s. The slobber around its mouth made him worry about rabies, and he walked faster.

The dog went faster, too, but kept a prudent distance. The bus stop on the side of the road was deserted, but Pardo was relieved to reach it anyway. Nerves ragged, he stood under the wooden shelter. In the empty road the dog switched its long tail, front paws out flat, back splayed a little, staring at the policeman. After a while, Pardo ventured out, found a rock in some brush and heaved it at the animal, which took off running into the darkness. What was unusual, Pardo realized later, on the bus ride home, was that it had made no sound, not even a whimper although his rock caught it cleanly in the leg.

Unusual was not the word for what happened when he left the bus in Sajonia and trudged home. At the intersection of Lata and Lio, there it was: the same ugly yellow hound with the piggish snout, splayed back, standing half in and half out of the fuzzy orbit of light from a streetlamp. Pardo turned back and took a longer route home. When he reached Santa Rita, his street, somehow it was behind him again. Unusual was not the word; impossible was. There was no rock handy to throw. The dog paced silently after him. He jogged home, where his wife waited to tick off a list of the things she hated about her life. After he’d eaten, he turned out the lights and locked up. He did not look outside to see if the dog was still there.

Now, in the dark cul-de-sac, the wind pummeled him. He was exhausted but prepared. Sand blew into his eyes, fogging his vision. He blinked, and his eyes teared steadily. He was pretty sure there were dogs coming around the corner of the dead-end street toward him, or one dog. He cursed, not at the dogs but at the beauty that distracted him. Above la Chacarita, velvet clouds tore apart in the high wind. Behind the clouds was the better part of a moon, light from which caught the edges of the tattering clouds and dyed them pastel, the softest rainbow of pale color.

His body was not what it should be, but his mind was steady, lucid, capable. When the figure of a man came around the corner, Pardo pulled the pistol from his coat pocket. If his eyes had been just a little better he would have been sure. About the dogs, about the man moving steadily in his direction. Not whether they were there but the wherefore was what baffled him. He forced himself not to look at the colored clouds above.

There was one dog, after all. Only one. No surprise. On the periphery of his field of vision there was a hole. They could lay all the traps they wanted to, he wasn’t going to fall into the hole they dug.

“I’m sorry,” he surprised himself by calling harshly to what might or might not have been the figure of San Che advancing on him. The fact that he was crying did not really bother him. He felt okay. They wanted what he knew. He had decided to give it to them.

He aimed the pistol and squeezed the trigger. The explosion reverberated along the walls of the warehouses. A wasted shot. No one there. Not just his body, after all, that had betrayed him. His brain also trembled. He felt weaker than ever, giddy. Relief was another form of weakness. He didn’t dare take a step. There was a dog in the hole.

My people come from the country. They still believe there’s something in the cold of August first that carries off the old folks. Think of me, how cold I am, like a kind of August first myself. I don’t hate living down here by the river except when it floods and everyone loses everything all over again just as though it had never happened before. I would like to believe that poor people sleep in God’s ear, but I’m not sure I can. I would like to believe all the good people sleeping so soundly now will wake up some day and put the fear of God where it should be put. I don’t hate the darkness, only what happens to me inside it.

I felt for Pardo’s pulse. There was none. Here is the single thing I find to say, at this point: I’m guilty, I am entirely guilty, of being myself. I’m sorry, he said. I heard him say it. How am I supposed to live with that? There’s a dog in the hole.

Mark JacobsIdaho Review2008