CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
The Coca-Cola Executive in the
The Coca-Cola executive was kind to me, though everyone was being kind that summer—an automatic kindness, one that I never questioned at thirteen and wouldn’t question now at thirty-three. We were at his office because he agreed to sponsor the envelopes on which my hand-drawn, machine-reproduced bills would be sold. The envelopes would be printed on red tissue paper with white lettering and the Coke logo to the side of the shield of my imaginary country, whose currency I began drawing obsessively after I was diagnosed with Duchene Muscular dystrophy. The diagnosis turned out wrong, but that is of no concern here—neither is the imaginary country.
I had been drawing my whole life, and my obsession turned to engraved matter: official seals, notary receipts, stamps, and money, particularly American dollars.
After I acquired some confidence in mimicking the whorls, the grooves, and the odd border lines surrounding the words in pesos and dollars, I created imaginary bills for an imaginary world populated exclusively by sharks and surfers. People at school bought originals and photocopies, traded them, made special requests. It was my mother’s idea to mass-market them.
As for the disease, it turned out not to be MD but dermatomyositis, a less severe acquired muscle condition that, like MD, causes severe weakness and atrophy. It took a while to correct the diagnosis. There were several years of treatment, additional diagnostic exams, and a four-month period of being unable to climb stairs, swallow, or do much of anything.
The disease is never quite wholly cured; the chances for a flare-up fade over time. Unfortunately, years later, I am dealing with one such episode—you take corticosteroids, watch your weight balloon, your flesh growing taut and odd, rolls of fat ribboned atop each other till you become the Michelin Man. Your ass swells and, when you eventually recover, you are left with pale violent stretch marks that scour your buttocks and thighs. You feel weak, you feel hormonal. You cry. You fall into fits of rage. Your mind wanders. You feel, no surprise, very sorry for yourself. You become so self-absorbed, your mind so consumed by the unfairness of your predicament, that it’s hard to conceive of someone else’s misfortune.
I had forgotten about the Coca-Cola executive until recently, when my uncle, visiting my parents in Texas, brought him up. The executive had nearly died last year, in 2005, when he had attended a reunion. The school was an internado—a year-long boarding school of last resort.
In the mid-fifties, the executive, then in his teens, had messed up. My uncle was vague on the details; he had been kicked out of schools; he may have gotten into too many fights or he may have simply neglected to do his work.
He was sent to the internado. Most closed down in the seventies. The three that remained, the executive’s among them, were finally shut down in the mid-eighties, though the building had been preserved and was still owned by the church.
You stayed in the school year-round. The only people you knew were the people you lived with, the janitors who took care of the place, and the priests and teachers who taught and disciplined you.
These schools were built in remote, high pockets of Colombia—not all of them were run by priests. The internados had a mostly positive effect. Some children had been sent from other countries—Ecuador, Peru, Argentina—and, at least for this particular Zapatoca institution, whose reputation for handling the recalcitrant was at its zenith in the late forties and early fifties, from Sweden, which sent two moody, dark-haired children with dark intentions, who never bothered to learn Spanish and wouldn’t smile, wouldn’t learn, wouldn’t play tag or fold paper airplanes with the other children, but who nonetheless showed up at the fifty-year reunion with twenty elephantine Ikea gift bags, each bag about the size of a Renault 9, a car that still zips and rattles through Colombia. I hesitated on including this detail, since it is too absurd, too hard to take in, but my uncle assures me that it’s so, and that the twins arrived with a rented truck; many of the guests donated their gifts to the town, since they had never anticipated carrying anything that large through the small winding road that connects Zapatoca to the rest of Colombia.
The twins worked for Ikea. They were both—like many others at the reunion, like the blur at the heart of this story—executives.
The children had thrived. They had all gone on to business. They had all, unaccountably, pulled out of shiftlessness and into diligence. They had all earned MBAs.
The Coca-Cola executive returned to the Zapatoca internado with a dead arm. Three years before, he had driven himself and his family to La Mesa de Los Santos—he had a family, probably a kid close to college age and another one a bit younger, and odds were, if they were anything at all like the other kids at the Campestre, one child or the other was following in his father’s footsteps and was up to no good, but of course there’s no telling.
Still, a man with a steady job who doesn’t gamble much, while playing golf, and a member of the club, likely had a family, so yes, we don’t have much of a choice, let’s give him one (this part is pure conjecture, but odds are it’s close to the truth): Mariluz, the wife, is darker than him, slender and pretty; the oldest son, Ricardo, listens to early Pearl Jam and one or two Colombian death-metal bands and way more Pink Floyd than anybody should, and though he is dark like his father, with the same unfortunate belief that a moustache is okay, and though he has done his share of massive Colombian-style drinking, which involves shots of the clear, lethal, way-too-sweet aguardiente chased by orange soda, and though he wears those oversized black t-shirts with band names blazoned across the chest, he is getting his BA at el Externado in Bogota, and will go on to McGill in Canada, where my cousin Juan David will befriend him. About Martinica, the youngest, the less said the better.
They were driving from Bucaramanga to La Mesa. The drive takes thirty minutes, and it’s one of the safest in the region, though the path is winding and steep, with no guardrails and giant blocks of pale orange rocks hanging directly overhead—one steady zip up a giant knuckle of the cordillera.
Kidnappings hardly ever occurred in La Mesa; there was some petty crime, a lot of bar fights, but nothing major—no killings, no guerillas. The place is heavily guarded. Drive up to the first tollbooth—three men with automatic weapons will check your cédula against a PeopleSoft database of known felons and guerillas and respectable citizens, and you will be let through. Access, in this rural spot of Santander, is heavily restricted.
There are two golf courses in La Mesa, and four country clubs have their actual “country” country clubs up there, and there are hundreds of fincas, country homes, scattered along the dirt roads. All is green and cold and crisp. On Fridays the farmers receive their paychecks and you see them in the poolrooms and the tienditas, and hours later you see some by the side of the road, passed out from beer and aguardiente. La Mesa has not changed—there’s a bit more electricity, better access, the roads are smoother, but most are still dirt, and some attention has been given to preserving the clumps of forests and the wide fields.
The event happened late one Wednesday; the Coca-Cola executive was driving late at night, alone in his old Renault 6, the family left behind at their country house—a car that was still seen on the roads, but rarely: it was slowly fading, falling out favor after years of loyalty. It was also blowing up a lot. Semana reported that the Renault 6, easy to break into, was the target of choice for stealing and then leaving by some police station, stuffed with explosives; it is apparently tailor-made for car-bombs.
But apparently also confusing to the people who confronted the Coca-Cola executive. It happened like this: earlier that afternoon, while still in Bucaramanga, down from the bustle of Cabecera, two men driving a Honda Civic followed the executive to a Conavi ATM. They tried to approach him but failed. The ATM camera shows them walking toward him, then away, two men scuttling offscreen, although it is hard to imagine them being intimidated by a moustachioed man in a polo shirt and jeans (thick belt, small cell phone clipped to it). Loss of nerves? A police officer or a private security guard might have passed, a heavy long-barreled weapon hanging from the shoulder. A little girl in a Jessica Simpson t-shirt might have chosen that particular moment to tap on the glass of the Civic. The Coca-Cola executive might have reached into his pocket. This last action is likely: he would do so later on that evening.
So the men followed the Renault into La Mesa. They were not flagged down at the retén, meaning they had not been caught or had not been doing this sort of thing at all, if ever, which my uncle says was likely, given how they acted.
The men are young and skittish. The Civic they’re driving is not so much a stolen vehicle as one borrowed, more or less, from a friend to whom they will be returning it soon.
In the late afternoon, the smaller towns in the lower hills surrounding La Mesa turn on their streetlights and the countryside becomes flat and black with the occasional scattering of white and yellow dots. La Mesa has fewer lights. For a long time no electricity was piped in and everyone depended on generators, so driving down the dark roads was hairy.
One saw little, and whatever was visible was also blurred and incandescent from its proximity to the headlights: eucalyptus and yerbabuena branches perpetually falling above you, never quite landing, the eyes of a cow or a horse or a dog suspended directly ahead then winking out, beams and barbed wire, bars lit bright, music blaring. Then nothing. Dirt and road and darkness. The situation has not improved much. You drive under the occasional glow of a streetlamp, but the road you drive on is still unpaved, long patches of it still unlit.
The Civic nudged the Renault to the side of the narrow road. The two vehicles, one jammed at an angle with the other, blocked all access. Anyone driving this patch of road ran the risk of running straight on into the men who were screaming at the executive and jumping up and down and getting too close to the Renault, so that one of them (it’s still not clear who) broke the driver’s-side window with the barrel of their gun. This last action was likely unintentional. They probably meant to get him out of the car, to show them that they were armed.
The executive climbed out of the car. The men, for reasons still unknown, stepped back. It was as though they weren’t quite ready for this part of the plan—they knew they would pull him over, and they knew they would get him out of the vehicle, demand whatever money he had, which they were doing, loudly and with a squeak here and there and repeatedly, but they had not counted on the physicality required: they gave him room. He could maneuver if he wished.
He did not, of course, wish to maneuver. Although there are people who will resist, the Coca-Cola executive was not one of them. It wasn’t a question of him being overly fatalistic. Instead, he knew that, given his position, he was a target; he had not thought he would ever be kidnapped, though the company did sometimes provide him and others with occasional protection if they thought it was warranted; this particular executive, however, had not appeared a likely target.
Which of course didn’t mean he wasn’t. In Colombia you went your way and lived your life—played your golf, raised your family—until something terrible happened to you or to someone you knew.
Take the woman, the wife of a cattle rancher, who drove her Range Rover through the llanos orientales, the wide open plains of the south-east—she rolled through the territory, notorious for its kidnappings and its pockets of guerillas and paramilitaries, with an Uzi hanging from her shoulder; she said that she would prefer not to be kidnapped, and to take a few of the criminals down herself; in the club, she wore pantsuits, a little too much makeup (a little too much makeup is the standard amount of makeup for most country-club women), and modest earrings.
My sister’s first boyfriend turned himself in to the guerillas in exchange for his father, who had been in captivity, and sick, for four months. The father had heart trouble, compounded by a bullet wound from the kidnapping: he had been stopped, dragged out, tied, and hauled to the back of a pick-up. The back had not been closed. He rolled out of the car, jumped out as best he could and, still tied, inched down the steep wild banks of the countryside. The guerillas eventually figured out he’d gone AWOL, backtracked, found him. They put him back in the pick-up, pressed the gas but did not, God knows why, close the back again, so the man jumped out once more (these must have been hairy jumps, but he didn’t break anything) and this time, because they were keeping a better eye on him, they managed to stop in time and chase him down. They fired a couple of warning shots and one of them hit him in the leg.
It is a matter of perpetual amazement to all Colombians that some of the worst brutality is often accompanied by equally violent displays of incompetence. If one didn’t kill you, the other could.
In the meantime, you lived as others do. That is how people go on. This mode of thinking is not, should not, be thought of as exclusively Colombian. Random terrible events can occur to everyone anywhere—it is the virtue and privilege of the human animal to be aware of this fact and to keep going, keep enjoying all there is to enjoy, including a drive, in one’s Renault, in the cold dead night of La Mesa de Los Santos.
The thieves asked for the executive’s wallet.
The executive reached into his jacket pocket. The air was still and the moon shone through fog and clouds—the world was blue and white. The men panicked and shot him in the arm; neither had asked him to hold still, and neither had heard the executive say, over and over, to keep calm, to keep steady, that he had his wallet right here and that they should take everything.
They took the wallet and drove off. The executive, now bleeding, waited for a car to drive by. One did in fifteen minutes. It didn’t stop. It made a halting attempt at stopping or slowing down, then accelerated, the executive all the while thinking, I would have done the same thing. Three more cars did so as well. Eventually, a Leche Alpina trucker stopped; the executive rode to an emergency hospital alongside a smallish cargo of Kumis, arequipe, parmesan cheese, and lactose-free yogurt.
The internado must have faded white walls and faded red brick, though the outside fence, while also built of bricks with broken bottles glued along the top, was a bright virgin blue. Even though Zapatoca is a small town, with little money, it has developed a reputation for civic pride in Santander. The whole town was freshly painted.
The school had been built in the forties. Red brick, highly ornate patterns on some walls. But also: tight and small and a box, with an outhouse a considerable distance away.
This outhouse—a rectangular building with four stalls, a long wood plank, and a deep trough that emptied into a pit some twenty meters away—had not changed since the alumni had left. The building had closed down twenty years ago. No one had ever bothered with inside plumbing. You walked a long, narrow, dirt path to the brick cubbyholes, and the walk was cold. Zapatoca was high up, two hours away from and a few hundred miles higher than Bucaramanga.
Most of the alumni stayed with relatives. Some at a hotel. A few, the Coca-Cola executive among them, chose to return to the school.
How old they must have looked to each other. The Coca-Cola executive must have looked particularly old: everyone at the club, my uncle among them, had commented on the dramatic effect of the robbery.
He had lost weight. He could not use his right arm. He was no longer, indeed, an active executive. The Coca-Cola company took care of him, and he received the pension and disability due to him, and on some days he stopped by the offices in Bucaramanga, though he had retired to Cali; he was a damaged beast, no longer good for whatever it is he was supposed to do, and he no longer showed any interest in golf or tennis.
He did look older. The others had also aged.
The talk stayed moored to the past. They treated it as though it had been a far more innocent time. The injured Coca-Cola executive was not the only victim of a violent crime; two fellow classmates had been kidnapped, another killed, four more robbed; all knew someone who had been kidnapped; most knew someone who had been killed. They did not talk about how Colombia was going to shit, because none of them believed it; they all liked Alvaro Uribe, whose presidency had marked a hard turn to the right, and they all seemed to think that things were actually getting better.
They could not account for half the class. Some had not been tracked down. Some refused to answer the invitation. Some could simply not make it and regretted it and let the rest know. Of the nineteen, only ten had returned to the internado fifty years later to see what time and the world did to recalcitrant children.
The world had treated them well. They had all done fine. They all knew it, and they all suspected that the internado might have played a part, though the part must have been obscure. Their reminiscences returned, again and again, to the breaking of the school rules, to getting away with drunkenness or disorder or laziness. Despite everything, despite the worst fears of their parents—some dead and all older than they could have imagined—here they were, back in the most remote moment of their existence, back to the most secret, most lonely episode of their early adolescence.
They talked for hours, drank a little or not at all, and at the end of the night, after having toured the old school—all still there, and though small not as small as they thought it would be; the memory of the space filled it out; the width and breadth of their isolation expanded its dormitory, its dining hall, and its two classrooms with the tiny portholes into the mountains far away—they retired to their hotels and host homes. Only the Coca-Cola executive and two others remained in the internado.
The executive looked well, considering. He had been ashen. Would not discuss the robbery attempt or what it felt like to be shot but did talk about his children and wife. How wonderful they had been after the event. How lucky he felt, considering. How one never knows what’s going to happen, and how the country has gone to the dogs, and how a man’s word is not worth what it used to be—that he remembered when all anyone needed to do business was one’s word. You’d say you’d agreed to pay this or that and it was enough. But not any more.
He retired to an old bed in his old room. The bed was small, smaller than a twin, with a thin mattress and a thin blanket. He had brought his own wool blanket. His wife had packed light, but she included the thick peasant blanket because the executive remembered the thinness of the internado’s bedding and the irrevocable cold of the place. He shuffled and reshuffled the blanket into place and wondered if it would take him long to fall asleep (he had been a light sleeper then, and the lightest cough or snore from a classmate would startle him awake) and as he was wondering he was gone, and could not remember, later, what he dreamed of.
He awoke two hours later, his bladder full. It took him a moment to remember that the outhouse had not been moved; indoor plumbing had not been installed. He padded out in boxer shorts into the cold, down a twenty-meter dirt road no wider than his feet, and into one of the four narrow cubicles cut into the face of a mountain, each with a wooden door and no roof, so that one could squat and stare at the stars and feel the wind, the chill, the Andean brace of the night.
He locked himself in.
The door, heavy, swung hard and shut itself behind him. It would not open.
There are doors of this sort everywhere in Colombia.
So the executive shivered for a time, and knocked hard, and yelled, but no one could hear him over the wind. He realized that he was going to die of exposure—to die of cold—in thin clothing, in the school that had given him his start in life, his first big turnaround. He knocked again and tried kicking but no luck.
The moon etched itself nitid and bright against the dark. And the night grew colder.
How one comes to make a decision of this sort is largely a mystery, not because it’s particularly difficult or emotional (given a choice between doing nothing, and dying, and doing something, suffering, and not dying), but because one has to resign oneself to pain right from the beginning. He took hold of the edge of the door by stretching his arm, the one that worked, and he jumped, one quick awful jump, enough to give the flex and his forward motion the necessary momentum, he hoped, to go over the wall.
He did not go over.
He knocked his face against the door and tried again.
An hour later, he succeeded.
The outhouse door had never been painted, or buffed, or sanded. As a student, he had often dreamed of escaping through it, but he had never, not really.
My uncle said that the executive was hurt—that the outhouse experience, which could have been an anecdote to tell over hot chocolate and eggs that morning, something to laugh about, required stitches, that his skin was badly torn, that some ligaments were damaged, that the working arm lost some of its mobility, that the face of the executive was practically unrecognizable from the bruises. The outhouse had been a worse experience than the botched robbery, the executive would say, not laughing at first, and later laughing but not really meaning it, wondering at the strange nature of Colombia, this impossible place he had been living in all his life, with its heavy doors that swung shut, with locks on the wrong side, so that transactions that would ordinarily not require much effort turned, without warning, into life-and-death struggles.
There’s the executive, wondering and thinking back to his time in the internado, when he was young and Zapatoca was all he had, and he was happy, and thinking back to the homecoming night, 2005 and every continent ablaze with random misery, a man with a potbelly and a moustache, swinging and scraping against the door, full moon lighting this world, not knowing what was going to happen to him and immensely interested, fascinated by his own dilemma, and for all his pain, there was this much: swinging over that door—making it through, knowing that very soon his body would be in all sorts of pain, a free fall on the other side and nothing to stop you but your own head and one dead arm—that one clear moment where flight had been achieved, where liberation had occurred, about that moment he had no words and usually kept quiet. What could you say? He swung, landed bleeding, and lived.