Chaco province was dry and hot that year. Living out of hotels was part of Gerry’s business, and simple phrases like “Where is the bathroom?” and “Where can I get a good drink” became part of an ever-growing vocabulary he brought back to his family back in New Jersey. His seven-year-old sister Stella’s international vocabulary always grew when Gerry came home.
Gerry was a commodities dealer for a firm in New York City. A dry business except for the faces of farmers who finally had a customer in The United States. To the sorghum farmer in Argentina, the United States a highly sought-after customer.
When the Argentina assignment came to Gerry’s inbox, he was told the farmers there only trusted people with a deep respect for their culture and ways.
“Spend some time in Buenos Aires, but even more time in the villages around Chaco,” the email read.
On a Wednesday, Gerry got out of bed at a small motel in Pampa del Infierno. The day before, in a farm 20 miles west of town, Gerry was able to make one farmer’s day, fetching sorghum at a price which seemed almost criminal.
Droughts were good for Gerry’s business.
He walked through the hall, waved and gave Gricela, a maid he’d had constant, yet shallow, contact with for the past week, a breathy “Hola,” with a slight head-bow. She always laughed each time Gerry greeted her, and he was O.K. with that.
The street was busy, teeming with other farmers and cattle being drawn through town. A team of eight or nine shoeless children were kicking around a dusty, faded soccer ball, screaming names of local futbol stars for the provincial teams. One woman, draped in robes, with a swinging cross passed by Gerry right as he walked out.
He reached out for the woman.
“Donde podo tomar un copa?”
The old woman frowned.
“Donde puedes encontrar las putas, para unos gringos.”
Gerry understood most of what the woman said as she shuffled on, murmuring under her breath. “Putas” from clubs back in New Jersey.
Gerry went on through the streets. His assignment was a week long, but the deal was sealed only two days after arrival, so he had until Sunday to make the best of the town, and as he made way through the streets trying to find a place with words he could understand, he found “Un Caballo Seco” nestled at the end of a dead-end street.
The saloon-style doors swung back and forth quickly, as if mounted on tight strings, and at the bar were mostly broken men, slumped over their plates of food and small glasses of foamy beer.
One seat in-between two of the patrons afforded a clear look at the chalk-board menu. Below the menu, where in an American bar liquor would be stacked, were bottles of beer with the butt-end facing out in plastic milk crates, black-and-white photographs of boxers and soccer players, and plaques of phrases with exclamation marks on either end.
The young man behind the far end of the bar was spraying some kind of solution on the coolers below, looking at Gerry.
“Cerveza? Una…. cerveza?’
The bartender sensed Gerry’s accent like a whiff of . He walked over.
“We don’t get too many tourist here.”
Gerry smiled, welcoming to one of only a few uncomplicated conversations. Doing business with farmers and their families was like navigating a rock crossing on a torrential river.
“Business. I’m here for business.”
“Oh yeah? What kind business?”
“Sorghum. For beer.”
Gerry pointed to the bottles facing him.
Gerry nodded his head.
“These guys, they all farmers.”
None of the other men at the bar looked up. They must not know English, Gerry thought. The bartender, who was also named Chaco, said the only time they saw gringos in these parts of the country was “…when you have secrets to hide.”
“Only three gringos I met my whole life. One, a long time ago.”
Chaco swung his hand to make the point a lot of time had passed.
“The other one, she still here somewhere.”
“What’s she like?”
Chaco explained he only saw her once, but that she was another traveler. Gerry took a big swallow of the warm beer and looked at the television with the volume turned all the way down. Chaco went back to polishing the bar.
“Where you stay?”
“At the motel down the street.”
“La pila.” Chaco laughed.
“Yeah, I guess.”
Chaco nodded his head to someone entering the bar.
As he sat swinging back and forth on the tattered leather stool, a song came on the radio.
“Por una cabeza, de un noble potrillo que justo en la raya afloja al llegar; y que al regresar parece decir no olvides, hermano, vos sabes no hay que jugar.”
The farmer to Gerry’s left started humming the tune as his head was lobbing down, drunk off beer. His gaucho hat was slumped over his eyes, and he swayed left to right, once bumping into Gerry.
“Ahh! Uno classico!” the farmer said.
Gerry’s aptitude for Spanish was not nearly enough to follow the song or its meaning.
“Hey Chaco, whose the other gringo you know?”
Chaco looked back from his newcomer and wiped his hand on his shirt with a gleeful grin.
“You, my friend.”