This story first appeared in The Feathertale Review No.1
Dave Tippet leaned back in his airplane seat and sighed. Finally, he thought, we’re on our way. He turned his head and cautiously eyed his friend Rick Glenners. Rick was grinning – never a good sign.
The two were on a plane bound for Lima. The trip was one in many of the duo’s sorties from their southern Ontario suburb. Before this, they had travelled to Southeast Asia, India and Eastern Europe – often by the seat of their pants.
They had been friends since middle school. Both attended the same nderniversity, but while Dave slaved over a degree in chemical engineering, Rick smoked pot and had sex with his journalism student colleagues (comrades, Rick called them). And when Dave held a minor position in the student government, Rick criticized his friend for election fraud.
All told, Dave was the responsible one, and Rick was not so much the passionate one as he was unstable. Indeed, it was at Rick’s behest that Dave’s copy of Lonely Planet: Peru was burned (in effigy of Rick’s latest ex-girlfriend) to ensure, as Rick had explained,
a “non-commercial, kick-ass voyage.”
“But why is he grinning?” thought Dave, as he reached onto his fold-down table and picked up a pack of stale peanuts off a book by Thomas Friedman.
As Dave popped a nut into his mouth, Rick called over a stewardess for another glass of wine and adjusted the volume on his iPod.
Dave went over in his head the trips of years past – more specifically, the times Rick’s rain dance of antics had brought upon both of them the foul soak of absurdity.
Chief in his mind was that time in China, when Rick’s debit card stopped working in Beijing, and he had traded away all of their clothes at the local cloth market while Dave recovered from a hangover.
Clad only in a towel, sandals and a dirty T-shirt, he had tailored for himself and Dave a pair of seventeenth-century Ming Dynasty-style robes. For the entire train ride to Hong Kong, and all the connecting flights to Toronto, the pair had travelled like ancient Chinese courtesans.
And then – it hurt, literally, to remember – there was Pushkar, Rajasthan, India. After witnessing a few hours of the locals fleecing oblivious foreigners by performing fake prayer ceremonies, Rick had suggested trying the same.
Unfortunately, the first tourists they came across were a trio of militant Ukrainian vegans in search of transcendental Indian enlightenment. Apparently, they thought they might find it in Dave’s jaw, ribs, groin, spine and pelvis. The ill-fated ploy for a quick rupee ended with both Rick and Dave being pummelled by three men who had obviously supplemented their diet of Eastern European muesli with an all-in-one home gym.
Poland was even worse. Let’s just say that post-communist, financially insecure security guards on a train bound for Khobvrosk are not likely to consider international law or other barometers of human dignity as they beat, grind, punch, kneel upon, and extort foreigners they find stowing away in the grain carriage of their beloved national railway.
All of these highly complicated, and highly painful, events had started with one thing: Rick’s grin.
“Rick,” Dave began uneasily. “What did you do this time?”
Rick removed his headphones. “Pardon?”
“Why are you grinning?”
Rick’s face tempered itself, like wise steel.
“Well…” Rick said, rubbing his thigh. “You know our cooking stove?”
“I am aware,” Dave said, “of its existence.”
It must be said here that most of this trip was to be done camping – two men, both virile, somewhat manly, and heterosexual, fighting the elements and, potentially, Colombian bandits.
“Dave, I took out the cooking stove and replaced it with my typewriter.”
This piece of information shook Dave like the kick and subsequent kiss of an Eastern European, tin-pot-dictatorship-funded private security guard.
“What?” Dave asked.
“Dude, think how fucking – I don’t know – romantic it’ll be. A fire, a tent, the Peruvian or Bolivian or Colombian, wherever we are, you know, wilderness around us! It’ll be great. I’ll transcribe everything.”
The passages Rick was imagining went something like this:
As Dave pushed back the undergrowth, he noticed the rash was back. “It better not be leprosy,” he said bravely. “Because that would be inconvenient.”
The mists over Machu Picchu swirled around me, moistening the paper jammed into my 1936 Smith Corona. I felt like a foreign correspondent assigned to cover “the life-changing experiences of Rick Glenners.” I wasn’t doing a good job – I was too caught up in “the moment.”
“Fuck you, Rick.”
“Goddammit Dave, think how many chicks this will get us. Even seeing the typewriter will snap their panties!”
“What the hell are you talking about? We’re going to starve, and it’s going to be your fault.”
“We’re going to nourish our souls and our, you know, library of sweet-ass stories.”
“Rick, this is – excluding that time in India with those goddamned Ukrainians – probably, even considering Poland, one of the stupidest things you’ve ever done.”
“What? How is this worse than Poland?” Rick said calmly, looking away as he sipped his plastic cup of wine to the dregs and called the nearest stewardess.
“Concentrate!” Dave said, drawing the attention of an obese, pasty tourist in the middle aisle. “We could die without a stove, you know.”
“We could die with a stove.”
“Whatever, man,” Dave said, picking up the Friedman, fluffing his pillow, and preparing to sleep. “You’re hunting for Peruvian game when the jerky runs out.”
“With pleasure,” Rick said, ordering two more glasses of wine.
1 – Lima and Flatness
As the plane touched down, Dave woke up and noticed his sweaty forearm had smudged the word “flat” three inches across the page he had fallen asleep on. The ink smear blotted out the next seven words.
“They were probably all ‘flat’ anyway,” Dave said.
“What?” Rick said.
“This book fucking sucks.”
“I hear ya,” Rick replied. “It’s a shame the only pictures those NYT columnists have with their writing is of their own faces.”
Dave, sick of things flat, looked out the window and saw glorious, ironed and ironic flatness, stretching as far as the eye could see.
“Whoa. There’s people down there picking tea between the runways,” Dave said, crowding the
window with his face so that Rick couldn’t see that he was lying.
“This is Lima,” Rick said dryly, “not…”
He trailed off, turning to look quizzically at the seat in front of him.
“You can’t even name another goddam city in Peru, can you?” Dave said, tossing the Friedman tome at his friend’s face. “Why did we burn the Lonely Planet and bring crap like this?”
The plane landed, lurched to a halt, and someone, somewhere, threw up their mid-flight Jell-O.
Dave and Rick stepped off the plane and waited for their luggage to bang its way towards them on the conveyor belt.
“If my S.C. ’36 is even mildly damaged…” Rick said.
“You’ll what – be unable to sell it as you watch me starve to death?”
“At least it wouldn’t be sold to fuel your appetite for being an asshole!” he laughed as their luggage rolled around the corner.
The two left customs after being sniffed – too closely, Rick said – by a dog-faced customs officer named Diego.
2 – Iquitos and the Second Surprise
It had been five days since the van dropped them off. The clouds of absurdity were gathering in the skies above. Things were looking bad.
From Lima, the two had negotiated their way north to Iquitos. It was a town of old, yellowed Catholic buildings swaying in the heat and dust of the midday sun, looking somewhat like the old, yellowed Catholic priests, who, swaying from drunkenness, had pinched Rick from behind as he tried to take pictures of some ancient church carving depicting a Peruvian native woman being ravished by several pious Spaniards, blessed, and then brutally murdered along with the rest of her village.
The Spaniards had apparently failed to kill everyone in the town, and Rick was beginning to suspect that those who escaped the slaughter had done so by hiding out in either a church or a colonial plastic
surgeon’s – one of whom had obviously blessed all future descendents of Iquitos with eternal beauty and, as Rick constantly pointed out, “gorgeous racks.”
The two travellers had spent four days of paradise lost in the arms of Iquitos’ senoritas, and their wallets had paid a heavy price – their contents having been emptied into the awaiting and bountiful cleavages of the Iquitos belles.
But all that was a distant memory, made increasingly distant by the fact that Rick was lying face-down in a puddle of leeches and was losing blood fast.
“Rick,” Dave said, almost too calmly. “You are lying face-down in a puddle of leeches.”
Dave bent down, rolled Rick over, and could see the outline of the Senorita Del Paz’s line cook gyrating in Rick’s pupils.
“Iquitos is behind us,” Dave said, slapping leeches off Rick’s grinning face.“And I doubt you could win anyone over with that cratered, leech-ass face.”
“Maybe now,” Rick said, “I can finally get a column in the Times.”
“I don’t think they hire people solely on physical unattractiveness,” Dave said, “and I think the only column you’re getting is one of ants, red ones, making their way down your spine and towards your…”
“Yep,” Rick said, wincing. “I feel them.”
“I’m beginning to think that tour guide left us here to die,” Dave said, squinting at the sun through the jungle foliage.
“He looked solemn when he took our money,” Dave added, breaking off a branch and shoving it down the back of Rick’s pants. “And when he drove off, I swear I heard him muttering prayers.”
Rick, taking the helm of the snapped branch, looked pensive. Then he started grinning. “There’s something else I should probably tell you,” Rick said. “You see, we’re not hacking our way toward the
Colombian border for nothing.”
“Those girls in Iquitos… not that I regret anything, let me stress that,” Rick said, making lewd gestures with his hands and smacking noises with his lips.
A couple of minutes passed.
“Yeah, okay. I get it. Iquitos was fun,” Dave said, when he had heard enough.
“Dave, the girls in Iquitos stole our plane tickets, our passports and our credit cards.”
The feeling in Dave’s stomach, at this moment, was somewhat like the time when one of the Ukrainian vegans had executed beneath Dave’s ribs the re-enacted equivalent of the Orange Revolution.
“And,” Dave said, swallowing, “this is why you were grinning?”
“No, I’m grinning because my plan is so kick-ass,” Rick replied.
“Four minutes ago you had leeches on your face.”
“And four minutes before that? Things change, Dave. People change. This plan is going to work, and it’s going to get us out of here rich.”
3 – Hacking to Colombia: An Explanation
The plan was simple if, of course, one’s definition of
a simple plan is simply how a plan is explained.
“It sounds almost too simple,” Dave said, raising an eyebrow and tossing jerky in his mouth. “I still don’t get how claiming to be gonzo novelists is going to get us past the Colombian border guards.”
“God, man. Do I have to explain everything twice?” Rick said.
Apparently, Rick did. So he explained again, how, as a hung-over Dave was nursed back to health and into poverty by Las Diablas del Nuit, a beautiful, abandoned Montenegran expatriate, Rick had descended, like a wraith, into the seedier underbelly of Iquitos – where dice were tossed as lives dangled by the fraying threads of bets.
It was among this rough crowd that Rick found the chicken with which to hatch his plan. He was known simply as El Daddy Escobar.
El Daddy Escobar had told Rick many things, among which was that a group of Colombian drug runners along the Peru-Colombia border had discovered a crate full of Spanish translations of French literature – dropped as a last-ditch effort in the U.S. war on drugs – and had consequently become existentialists who, convinced faith was meaningless and only acts defined them, were questioning the ethics of drug-running, thieving, rape and murder.
“They are ripe,” El Daddy had said in a thick Montenegran accent, “for influence.”
The plan was thus: Rick and Dave would be dropped off and hack their way north toward the Colombian border. They would then cross it, claiming to be gonzo novelists, run into the drug runners (“they will find you”) and convince them that to matter in the grand scheme of things – at least according to the French – they would have to hand over either all of their cocaine, or a significant amount of their profit margins. El Daddy’s accomplices would meet them in San Jose del Guaviare, where they could recuperate in peace before flying out of Bogota.
“But how will we get across the border?” Rick had asked.
“The border,” El Daddy had said wistfully, “is as porous as fine Montenegran lingerie. The girls tell me you have a writing machine. Bring it, and tell them you are writers of jungle stories, but whatever you do, do not claim to be journalists.”
4 – Near Death: The Border Crossing
Rick’s backpack was weighing down on his shoulders – there being, in addition to several weeks’ supply of food and water, a massive steel typewriter bouncing between his shoulder blades.
Dave was faring a little better in that his backpack was slightly lighter but not much better in that he had typhoid.
They had been in the jungle for more than a week now, surviving on jerky, dew and canned beans. They were ragged and covered in bug bites, but at least, Rick said, they hadn’t seen a tourist since Lima.
In the mornings, light mist dampened the leaves around them. They often crested magnificent hills clear-cut of trees that might obstruct the view, which stretched over vast swaths of golden-hued stumps that pulsed outward through Colombia and toward Brazil – much, Dave pointed out, like “the pus-oozing rash running down my arm.”
It was on the evening of their seventeenth day in the jungle that they, from such a hill, spied a thin column of smoke rising from the forest canopy.
“The border,” Rick said, “is upon us.”
It took almost on hour to reach the fire, which turned out to be consuming a guard tower and several bodies. Dave and Rick wandered into the clearing, dazed.
The Colombian border guards were all dead:
Several had been machine-gunned around a Parcheesi board, while others had been tossed in a pile and run through with a flagpole billowing the likeness of Albert Camus.
“Good thing he drove himself off a cliff,” Dave said, taking in the grisly scene.
“Hey, that’s never been proven,” Rick said, staring at a soldier whose head had been bashed open and had a fire burning inside his skull. “Oh, look at that. Cool.”
5 – Precursor to: The First Encounter
Rick and Dave were three days into Colombia when they realized they were being followed. At first, they thought they had forgotten to stamp out their cooking fires – having, of course, a distinct lack of cooking stove. But as they began to hear after nightfall the eerie sounds of amateur accordion and what sounded like three-fingered jazz guitar, they began to worry.
“Oh God,” Rick whispered. “Did you hear that?”
“Yes,” Dave said.
6 – The First Encounter
“Voo. Don’t mauve,” a voice said.
Rick and Dave didn’t move.
“Voo can mauve now. Turn around.”
Rick and Dave turned around. Never having seen Colombian drug runners before, Rick and Dave were not too sure how to assess what was arrayed before them.
Two of them were wearing suits, and Rick could see, from amidst the jungle grasses, at least one pair of canary yellow loafers. One man had a guitar slung across his back and a blood-soaked bandage covering part of his left hand.
Another, the leader, who was the one speaking, had a tailored, open-chest white shirt and a long cigarette holder held daintily between his index and middle fingers. Most importantly, perhaps, they all had massive semi-automatic weapons and viciously serrated knives.
“Voo have crozzed into our territory,” the man said, in what could only be described as a French-Colombo-Peruvian accent. The man held out his hand, and an accomplice placed over it a white glove. The leader then strode forward confidently and smacked Rick across the face.
“Voo have stained my glove,” the man said thoughtfully.
And with that, his existentialist cronies descended on Rick and Dave, in what an objective film-savvy omniscient would have called a cross between a gangster movie set in prohibition-era Chicago, Indiana Jones, and a Goddard flick, and beat the two unconscious with axe-kicks to the spine and face.
7 – Prisoners and the Bargain
Rick awoke with the heat of a fire searing his face. As his vision de-clouded, he took in the scene: Dave, still unconscious, and himself were tied up side by side on a hilltop clearing, in the middle of which was a bonfire of Colombian border guard corpses.
“Shit,” Rick said.
“Voo are,” the leader’s voice said, as he walked into Rick’s vision, “obviouzly, better able to judge a situation azter two dayz of beating-enforced zleep. Vour friend’z tyvoid zeemz to be vorzening.”
Rick turned to look at Dave, who was pale and had, since their entrance to the jungle, lost twenty-five pounds.
“We’re gonzo novelists, you see, um, writers, really, of fiction – I mean, we deal with nothing real at all,” Rick said, with increasing nervousness.
“I have zeen ze typewriter. Vere are voo from?”
“Dere are no writers in Canada. Only France.”
At this point, Dave started stirring. They both turned and watched as he vomited twice and sat up.
“I feel like…” Dave said, trying to think of a painful analogy, and then stopped, because thinking was painful.
“Voo,” the man said accusingly. “Both of voo, are journalizts.”
“Fuck,” Dave said.
“No, no,” Rick blurted. “We’re novelists. Fiction. You hear? Fiction.”
“Zen vat is ziss?” he said, holding up a dog-eared, sodden copy of Thomas Friedman.
“Shit,” Rick said, looking at the ground.
“Dude!” Dave yelled, practically screaming (for someone with typhoid). “Goddammit! You were carrying that around this whole time?”
“I was using it as toilet paper,” Rick said. “Dere are no pagez mizzing. I checked. It iz a terrible book. Artlezz.”
“But he makes things so damn simple,” Rick said faintly.
“Zimple is artlezz.”
“What about Hemingway?” Rick asked.
With this, the man closed his eyes, breathed deeply on his elongated French cigarette, and stepped backward. He turned his back on them, balling his left hand into the small of his back.
“Hemingvay, he iz French. Voo know of heem?”
“Of course I do,” Rick said, eyeing the man.
“I know all the greats: Sartre, Camus, Hemingway, Baudelaire, um, Voltaire, Moliere, uh, Descartes, and, um, uh, geez…”
“Andre Gide?” Dave offered.
“Gide getz dead cat rubbed in faze,” the man said.
“Way to go,” Rick whispered.
“But vour knowledge of French exiztenzializm is imprezzive. Perhapz, you haz seen our flag. It is good. Non?”
“Great,” Dave and Rick said in unison.
“Voo zee, a long time back ve came acrozz a box of bookz. They were all French. Very inzpiring. Ve all conzider ztopping the moving of ze drugz. Ve have no more bookz now, though. And have read vhat ve have left, many timez. Not inzpiring. Continue drugz, maybe. Voo are novelizts?”
“I am, at least,” Rick said.
“And voo are vamiliar viz exiztentializm?”
“Oh yes, definitely,” Rick said. “You’d be hard pressed to, uh, find someone giving more thought to the justification of suicide… this side of the, um, Peruvian border.”
“Zen,” the man said in a raised voice, as the fire of burning bodies cast his shadow across the clearing, “vite for uz somezing French, and if voo inzpire uz
ve shallz give voo our drugz, and our money, and
become like Robin Hood, though he iz not French, but still good.”
“And if what I write doesn’t inspire you?”
“Voo die and ve make fire inzide your head.”
8 – The Old Man and the Drug-Running Existentialists
The scene was set. Inspired by an acquired love of theatrics, the drug-running existentialists had lit the place up with yet another border patrol bonfire and placed the 1936 Smith Corona on a dais of stone in the centre of the clearing.
Several cronies had broken open bottles of Peruvian wine and were playing the accordion. Unfortunately, gangrene had set in on the impressionable guitar player’s hand and there were no duets.
“Dere you go,” said the man in the white suit, placing paper in the typewriter. “Ztart writing like Hemingvay.”
Their ropes had been cut, and the two walked slowly up to the stone dais, rubbing their aching wrists and ankles.
Rick sat down at the typewriter and, like all writers at one point or another, especially when faced with replicating Hemingway in front of a clearing full of increasingly drunk Colombo-Peruvian existentialists playing accordions and stroking semi-automatic machine guns, he blanked.
He blanked hard. One of the cronies noticed this and threw a rock at him. It hit Dave in the temple, and his typhoid-wracked body crumpled to the ground, unconscious. Again.
Rick, newly inspired, looked down at the keys shimmering in the firelight. He began typing:
The Old Man, the Sea, and the Drug-Running Existentialists
“Hmm,” Rick said, pausing. “Do the French use Oxford commas?”
Nevertheless, Rick ploughed bravely onward. He recalled his summers spent fishing with his stepfather for inspiration: A tediously insipid drunk, Dale Haggins had beaten Rick’s mother mercilessly with the fish he caught, and then forced her to cook them for him.
The man was not unlike Hemingway, Rick thought, but he had a feeling the man in the white suit, who was scrutinizing every word he wrote, had no penchant for realism.
“Voo write vell,” the man said, holding the sheets up in the firelight. “Voo are obviouzly no journalizt.”
Some of the drug runners were watching over Rick’s shoulder as he typed. Every time a sentence clocked in at fewer than seven words, they cheered and drank more wine in tribute to Ernie. They also gave some wine to Rick – too much, it seemed.
Just as the disease-ravaged Dave was waking up, Rick, now intoxicated, finished off the piece with an artful twist, reading aloud with drunken bravado:
“And as the Old Man released the giant fish back into the ocean, he turned into the glowing Colombian sunset and said:
‘If you love life and Albert Camus, set it free. I am an existentialist with no need for drugs or money.’”
At this point, Rick thought he had the drug
runners in the palm of his hand. Several were in tears and were throwing bags of cocaine onto the ground. Others had put down their guns and were hugging each other. Some were rubbing foreheads and stroking goatees, reading out sentences they enjoyed.
Rick was proud of himself. The man in the white suit approached him, and extended a gloved hand.
“Voo haz done vell,” he said. “Voo write artfully, not like journaliztz, but like famous Parizian Hemingvay.”
“You know whyz Hemingway waz in Pariz, don’t you?” Rick asked, slurring his words.
The man stared, blinking.
“He waz working for a newspaper.”
9 – Run!
The vacuum of silence that fell over the clearing was broken only by the intermittent crackling of Colombian bones in the fire until several drug-running existentialists let loose blood-curdling screams of “Lies!” and “Kill them!” They all picked up their guns and knives and chased after Dave and Rick, who had grabbed what they could and plunged into the twilight-soaked rainforest to hide.
10 – Conclusion
The Canadian Embassy in Peru was only notified of Dave and Rick’s collective absence thirty-seven days after they had last been seen in Iquitos, and even then, could do nothing to help them.
This would, of course, have been different had they been diplomats, or had they been young, blond, female and good-looking, and captured by swarthy, easily vilified ethnic minorities – but this was not so and now, as Reuters was reporting:
Two bedraggled Canadian tourists arrived in Bogota today after spending two months in the Amazonian rainforest.
Wracked by disease and bickering, the pair arrived at City Hall this morning, demanding visas and plane tickets. They repeated feverishly they craved “the sweet bounty of Iquitos,” a small town in northeastern Peru.
One of them, Dave Tippet, 25, of Mississauga, Ont., claims to have been beaten by a “three-fingered existentialist” and to be suffering from typhoid.
“And it’s all this (unflattering term’s) fault,” he said, pointing to Rick Glenners, 26, of no fixed address.
Glenners declined to answer any questions, asking only – and quite insistently – whether he could open up a Reuters bureau in Iquitos, saying he had “enough white money to make it happen.”
— 30 —
Illustrations by Kamila Mlynarczyk