How it began? I was working on Tio Rey’s farm — a coca plantation really – in Santander near the petroleum port of Barrancabermeja. I happened to be in the bunkhouse washing off dirt and evidence that only bastard relatives and hired help handle. When I finished, I passed an open stall. Gregorio was on the toilet leafing through porn. I wasn’t sure he had noticed me. Legitimate family paid no attention to the rest of us and weren’t even supposed to be in the bunk house. I should have walked away, but Gregorio moaned, slid off the seat, then slumped over and started to snore. My heart melted at his lack of shame.
Gregorio was in his early thirties, a tall strong man at the height of his physical powers. I was slight, still in my teens, and developing a crush on him. We were half cousins or something even farther removed. Tio Rey, the head of a sprawling family, had recently taken me in because my mother, always sickly, turned worse after my father fled.
Yes, Tio Rey did people favors but never let them forget his generosity. And, yes, Gregorio was wedlocked family, but just a nephew—one of Tio Rey’s many sisters’ many sons. After Tio Rey received a bad report about Gregorio’s Navy service, he forced Gregorio from the big house to an old cottage on the edge of the property. The quarters would have been cramped if Gregorio’s wife and kids had been with him. But they were living with Gregorio’s mom in Valledupar, apparently to escape his temper.
I’m not sure how I got assigned to fix up the cottage. Probably because the real handy man was recovering from a fall. And probably because I lied about my experience and skills. Plastering walls, sealing windows, putting up shelves – none of that sounded complex. Moreover, rehabbing the cottage meant avoiding heavier work, at least for the time Tio Rey doled out for the job before Gregorio moved in. Tio Rey also said he hoped he could trust me — someone with a slight blood connection and not entirely trash – to keep an eye on his nephew. After my brush with Gregorio in the bunkhouse, I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Nothing Tio Rey would understand or needed to know.
I wouldn’t say friendly, but sometimes Gregorio nodded when we crossed paths in the fields. He never quite acknowledged what had happened in the latrine – in each other’s presence if not exactly between us. But memories of his utter abandon overpowered me. Often when I entered the cottage, I would lie on the floor a long while to clear my life enough to work.
Near move-in date, Gregorio visited his new lodging for the first time. I don’t remember which of my construction errors I was trying to undo or conceal, but, when he opened the door, he looked around and laughed, “Little primo,” he said acknowledging our bond, “If Tio Rey sees this, you’ll lose a month’s pay.”
“I can fix things,” I said encouraged that he had called me cousin.
“How?” he smiled, maybe with interest in keeping me around.
“Anything you want!” Not flattery, just hope to secure the connection. “Really, anything would be an honor.”
“What exactly would I want from you.”
“From me, there’s a lot you could enjoy.”
“I’m not making promises,” he said, “But you can try to work me around to one.” Then he offered himself like a dove from God’s hands. I was better at serving Gregorio than at construction work, but not great. “No teeth, cousin,” he whispered and slapped me tenderly across the head. I felt at home for the first time in years, at home or on the threshold.
Occasionally, just before disappearing, Gregorio would complain to Tio Rey about some aspect of my cottage makeover; and, while Gregorio was gone, Tio Rey made me resolve the problem, along with most of my regular chores. Before dawn one day, an empty cannister I dropped rolled under Gregorio’s bed. When I reached for it, I found sets of harness made of nylon cord. They looked like men fashioned with elaborate knots and adjustable loops, like nooses for the neck and limbs. I was still too young for the military, but I could appreciate a sailor’s skills with rope and tackle, and, for me, most everything Gregorio did was masterful.
I don’t know if Gregorio murdered any of the motorcycle taxi drivers in the dozens of ritualized stranglings the police claim. Only toward the end did I notice that those crimes occurred during some of his absences. And toward the end, I let myself connect them with the way Gregorio pulsed more powerfully than a black star when he returned to the cottage. I can’t say what kinds of desire are satisfied – or stoked – by such horrible things. Feeding on the lies at the core of life, maybe Gregorio never could have loved another person or passed up a chance to kill him. Perhaps I came closer to dying than I realized.
Sure, I have regrets, but not because I didn’t snitch to Tio Rey about the harnesses. Truth is I might have enjoyed enhancing Gregorio’s pleasure while his victims slowly choked. For now, at least, that chance is gone. How did I imagine things turning out? There would be a miraculous unraveling, or there wouldn’t. But I could never have stopped serving Gregorio, if that’s what you’re asking.
In the absence of capital punishment, Gregorio was sentenced to two years for each of his victims. Under Colombian justice, he’ll serve no more than 15. Tio Rey should be dead by then, and I’ll be in my thirties, at the height of whatever powers I’m ever going to have. And when Gregorio gets out – or soon after – he’ll realize how eager I remain to repay my debt of gratitude.
Chuck Teixeira practiced law for many years in San Francisco, California. Now he works in Bogota, Colombia. Chuck’s stories have appeared in Esquire, Permafrost, Portland Review, Two-Thirds North and Jonathan. Some of Chuck’s work has been collected in books available at Amazon.com.