Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

The Strays

 

This story begins most closely to its end in a fake Irish pub in Santiago, Chile, around eleven at night.

The pub was fifteen long blocks up Vicuña Mackenna’s wide, busy sidewalks from the apartment where I stayed. It sat in a square in the Bellavista District with all the other tourist bars, marked with a big green neon sign that read “Dublin” in Gothic script next to a glowing shamrock. Inside the pub it was worse. The bar itself was a single, heavy length of wood with polished brass fittings all over it but that was likely the only real thing in the place. The walls were a freshly painted forest green with orange accents everywhere. They were covered with those reproduction Guinness posters and others from local brews. They served a pretty decent chorrillana, a kind of loaded french fry plate, but you could find better.

That night I sat at the bar alone, complaining in my head about how they don’t even serve Guinness at this place. I was twenty. I’d had maybe two beers, and besides whining, mostly I was just thinking about what I’d be getting at the sopaipilla cart outside my building later. 

I finished my drink and signaled to the bartender to order one more for the road. A girl called to me from a corner table with her friends. “I’ll get your next one if you come sit with us,” she said. She was sitting but I could tell she was tall, maybe even my height. Long, straight brown hair with kind eyes and a round face. She was smiling.

I smiled back. “I’ll have another Escudo,” I said. Escudo and Cristal are like the Miller and Budweiser of beers in Chile: equally boring, equally cheap. Most nights I preferred Austral and Kunstmann but this wasn’t one of those nights.

She stood up and stopped the bartender. Definitely my height. “How about a piscóla?” She asked me. “I’m buying.” Piscóla is a cheap mix of pisco (a grape brandy and local liquor) and Coca Cola. They can’t get enough of it down there.

“I don’t drink that shit,” I told her. My filter must have been loose. She made a mock expression of disapproval, hands on her hips and everything.

“You will tonight,” she said. I didn’t argue.

I sat down with this girl and my drink and the rest of her crowd. Her name might have been Ashley or Amanda or something else, I forget now, but I’ll call her Audrey because I’m sure that wasn’t it. Audrey was Irish. Real Irish, not like me or the pub. Her friends were too, or most of them at least. They had all bought round-the-world flights and were spending a year or so going wherever they wanted, soaking up the culture and booze and generally having a good time. There were maybe seven or eight of them. One of the guys was an ex of hers but she told me it wasn’t a thing anymore, and it never came up after. Besides the seven or eight friends of hers from the motherland they had a friend they had met earlier that night. That was how it went down there. This friend was by all accounts a nice guy, and he was adamant about taking them to a gay bar he frequented to meet up with a few more of his own pals. Everyone was on board; the gay bars in Santiago are absolutely worth the trip. This one featured a drag show. The local friend left early and told us to meet up with him later.

Somewhere in that communication, however, crucial details were lost and never found. It didn’t matter, we had numbers, we had cash and time to kill. We had each other. We tabbed out only after we’d worked ourselves into a little fervor and left the pub as a unified swarm of drunk Europeans. I doubt we were missed.

I quickly learned something. Audrey, my surprise benefactor and new friend, had a good heart. She was naturally fond of not just other humans, but all forms of life. This led to a small problem. 

Much of Latin America has something of an unclaimed animal issue. It’s mostly dogs and cats, and it is very common to see these strays all over. No one really pays them any mind and the animals mostly keep to themselves. The cats rarely come out farther than the shadow of their alley or down from their rooftop parties, and the dogs are just as polite. Probably more polite than most of the drunks I’ve met in any country, and they wait to cross the street until the signal changes, even then staying reasonably close to the crosswalk lines painted on the pavement. They stick to their little packs and wander around not bothering anyone, doing whatever it is three or four dogs come up with as a reasonable plan. That is until they are approached.

This is a mistake, one I’d learned on a previous trip, and I tried my best to explain this to my new friend, but she wasn’t having it. Audrey was infatuated with every damn dog she saw. These dogs are a bit like zombies though, and as soon as you get their attention they will follow you with supernatural patience. Also like the undead, they seem to attract more of their own kind.

We had walked maybe seven or eight blocks, our own little pack splitting and stopping and sticking back together again like rain on a car window when I realized what was happening. Audrey made a point of petting every dog we passed, and soon a small horde of around two dozen strays were following us or following each other all the way to this mythical drag show. We drew looks but Audrey didn’t seem to notice or care and she continued to add more tagalongs to our growing retinue. Each new member got a head pat and a nickname and I bet she still remembers a few. Odd as we must have looked, I felt secure. This was Bellavista, where the cops wore riot gear and protected pot-smoking tourists from local drunks to make sure they felt safe enough to keep spending foreign money. And we had a full canine escort.

There was always another burning neon or dull eggshell sign up ahead to light our way. They were dirty, hard plastic sheets printed by the big local breweries that were always cracked and lit with a set of cheap fluorescents, one of them always flickering or burnt out. Santiago is a beautiful city, even in the austral winter when the Andes are obscured by smog and cloud. It’s one of those Latin American cities with a lot of history and colonial architecture and brick pavement. That old architecture was built to last, and newer businesses had to squeeze in to find a spot. The cheaper cafes were usually simply furnished and all looked the same. A big-brew sponsored sign over an open garage-style door and one dying incandescent out front by the tables on the sidewalk, with the rest of the yellow glow coming from inside that big open door. The tables at those places were always filled with young Chileans, drinking Cristal or more likely Escudo from forty ounce plastic bottles with the twist-off caps all lined up on their tables. That culture has perfected the casual lean more than any other I have seen, and I never failed to feel uncool as I walked the streets in that city.

Except that night, maybe. That night I was surrounded by half a dozen loud, healthy looking Europeans and about thirty fucking dogs and I felt like some kind of movie star. I don’t remember if Audrey and I shared a lot of interesting conversation then, but that was a long time ago. I do remember laughing my ass off the whole time, leaning on her, leaning on her friends, and them leaning on me.

And then we got to the bar. I don’t know how we got to this place and I still couldn’t point it out on a map but there we were. I was skeptical at first, and I wasn’t the only one. We stopped maybe twenty yards away from the place, catty-corner across the street. We saw a neon sign with a name I can’t recall and a back door lit up in the night with a little set of steps leading down to the sidewalk. It was less busy in this part of town, we were close to the edge of the tourist district. We briefly conferred about whether or not this was the place when a woman came out of the back door and lit a cigarette. The woman was obviously a man, and we agreed this must be it. The strays were not convinced. One of the dogs started to bark at this woman, and a few others joined in for the hell of it. This led to all of the dogs taking extreme issue with the poor queen. One approached her, still barking, and she waved her hand at it to make it leave, but the strays that had come this far were not about to be intimidated. A few others drew nearer along with the first dog. She stepped toward them and yelled, swinging her cigarette, “Vete! Vete ya!” They were unmoved. Reinforcements quickly arrived for the vanguard and the woman, now cut off from her escape back into the club, had no choice but to run. While we stood and watched, the entire pack took off after her, the rolling echoes of their barks drowning out the sound of her feet slapping the pavement. Our local friend called Audrey around then. This wasn’t the place.

We all stood mute, torn between the promise of the future on that call and what we had witnessed moments before. No one knew what to say and we just looked at each other with open mouths. Then someone started laughing, and that was it. Everyone fell back into line and crossed the street to go back the way we’d come. I stopped for a moment to look back at what I’d just seen, still not quite solid in my mind. I wanted to understand. The drag queen’s cigarette was still burning, barely, on the sidewalk a few feet away from a lone sequined heel.

“You think she’ll be okay?” I asked Audrey. 

“She’ll be fine, those sweethearts couldn’t hurt anyone.”

“That didn’t look so sweet.”

She grabbed my hand and pulled me away, toward the rest of the group across the street. “She’ll be fine,” she said again. She smiled, like she did the first time, all with her eyes. It was time to move on.

After that things became more well-lit. We shouldn’t have gone north at all, our bar was south of the Mapoche, the little river that ran east to west across the center of the city. The buildings got taller there, more like the high-rises of downtown where I lived and they were covered in white paint or mortar, reflecting the white-yellow lights from the tall incandescents lining the streets. My hand often found its way awkwardly into Audrey’s, or around her waist or the waists of her friends. We rode each other piggy back down the wide sidewalks, zigzagging until the carrier got tired and demanded a turn. Everyone was hugging each other or kissing each other on the cheek. Audrey looked at me like she wanted to see me in the morning, and I probably looked that way too.

Ultimately, we found the bar. The right one. I still can’t remember what the place was called. If Santiago didn’t have so many gay clubs I might think I just made it up, some amalgam of memories glued together with alcohol and whatever else I could find most nights. Memories are fickle though, and clarity doesn’t attach itself automatically to importance. In this case, I best remember walking in.

Like a lot of the later night clubs in Santiago you entered at street level and then walked down a flight of stairs under the building. It was dark, but we’d already paid the bouncer and doubt was replaced by anticipation. The walls rose up on either side of us leading back to the street, letting down less light with every step. The thump thump thump tsss of the club was getting louder and we all knew that if this wasn’t where we’d planned to be it was where we were ending up. 

We turned a corner at the bottom of the stairs and found what we were looking for. There were three cages in a line, raised up on podiums on the dance floor about five feet tall and inside were men dancing naked except for tiny thongs and a boa or two, probably thrown onstage by an admirer. The boas traveled all over their bodies like feathery snakes to loud applause. We applauded too. And then, nothing.

I have forgotten the whole night in that damn bar. That’s how it goes. 

Fortunately though, I didn’t forget saying goodnight to Audrey later. She gave me her hostel’s address and told me (please) come say hey in the morning before they caught a bus or a train to wherever. I said of course I would, knowing through the booze and everything that I wouldn’t go. She leaned in and we kissed like two kids hiding from their parents.

She smiled at me and said, “See you tomorrow?”

I smiled back. “Yeah, for sure.” Liar. She took one last look back and skipped down the steps to meet back up with her friends.

The last thing I can recall that night is walking home alone on the sidewalk past the sopaipilla cart by my building. I never saw her again.

I don’t think about her too often. I do wonder if that drag queen ever found her lost shoe. I wonder if those dogs split back up after their night ended, and if they wave at each other when they pass on the crosswalks. I wonder if they miss each other. I wonder if they even remember, or if they forget the best parts too.  

 

 

Josh True is a Columbus based writer, born and raised in the Ohio River Valley.