• Fearsome Critters

Bindings, Power Lines — Greg Ross

Ever since a friend bought On the Road in a dark corner of a secondhand bookstore in Naples, Italy, I’ve been on the hunt for used books. Not to read them, necessarily, but rather to stack them on a shelf and rub their grainy pages every now and then. So, on my second day in Paraguay, I knocked on a door that read “Oficina de Libros.” I half-expected it to say “Allan Pinkerton,” the way the door’s opaque window illuminated the empty foyer with yellow light. It’s clear that the golden days of the Office of Books are long gone; the tramway that once serviced the street stopped running 20 years ago. Now the shelves accumulate dust and exude that old book smell. Titles are organized by years of browsing, unbuying hands. Magazines and mugs clutter a heavy desk, which abuts an ancient grandfather clock that tells of time. On a worn chair in the corner sit two eyes.

After casting off the yoke of Spanish empire in 1811, this land of sluggish rivers and red dirt roads turned inward, silent and shy to the curious world. Paraguay closed its doors to merchants, mappers, and misfits alike, all eager to tap into the mysterious new republic. Part of Paraguay’s mystique stemmed from its heavy-handed dictator, José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia. El Supremo ruled Paraguay until 1840, fortifying feeble borders and disposing of anyone who challenged his grand vision for the landlocked nation. All marriages required Francia’s stamp of approval, and when he took his daily stroll through Asunción, residents took their siesta not due to tired eyes or the afternoon heat, but to avoid his piercing gaze.

There, in the corner of the Office of Books, sat a veritable Francia, eying my timid entrance into his musty domain. He, the Supreme; I, an alien body, a mere vassal in his court of chapters, characters, and saturated prose. American, college student, poor Spanish. A submissive introduction from my unarmed arsenal.

He responded by scratching his chin. It occurred to me that he’d rather listen to the unerring ticks of the grandfather clock. I started to say something else, but he had heard enough. He threw up both of his hands in exasperation. A husky voice: “What do you want?”

Francia. I want to read about Francia. Chin in hand, again. I looked down at my feet, up at the ceiling, across the room. Anywhere but his eyes. “Hold on,” he said. Exhaling with effort, he thrust himself out of the sunken armchair.

His labored limp to the other side of the room gave me a minute to browse. On the shelf, a pink spine: En mi planeta no se usan joyas. A brown spine: El ferrocarril en el Paraguay. A green spine: Hijo de hombre. I pulled out the book and paged through — a novel by Roa Bastos. Red pen marked every other line. “My grandfather’s,” shot the husky voice from across the room, as if I were stepping on his grave. I quickly put it back.

“Here,” he said. “Here’s all I got.” Into my outstretched arms he dumped book upon book, a tilting, towering stack piled sixteen volumes high. Under the weight of an entire shelf, I staggered over to a chair to sort through.

Most were titled Francia, or Francia, una biografía, or something along those lines. One was in English: Four Years in Paraguay: Comprising an Account of That Republic. I paged through. A travelogue by the Robertson brothers, two early 19th century Scots who were among the few foreigners able to penetrate Francia’s impervious borders. They penned a passage about their entrance into Paraguay:

My first impression I shall never forget; nor can I believe but that the same glowing imagery arises always to our view, upon our first visit, in youthful days, to a new country. What romantic portraitures have we not had even of the Esquimaux! Novelty and contrast have charms which are quite irresistible, till they come to fade before the chilling influence of experience. She throws a phlegmatic coldness over our estimate of men and things; and while she enlarges the sphere of our philosophy, she narrows the circle of our warmer affections, and more glowing associations.

I shut the book and set it aside.

Late that evening I tread city sidewalks. I seek out eyes; I seek untold stories content to curl up in the dark. On the lip of a soft streetlight’s reach, shadows shift and pull me deeper into the night. Warm air finds my unbuttoned collar and tempers my hardened stride. I make my way from Plaza Italia to Plaza Uruguaya, cutting across streets of potholes and beat-up Bel Airs. Here resides Kerouac’s ghost, sprawled in the back of a pickup truck, gripped by words straining to express the bigness of it all.

I settle into the blue massage of night, slipping past corner brawls and ragtag dogs on their eternal search for scraps. My legs carry me further into the belly of the city. I’m wrapped in red haze; I’m back in the bookshop. Space delineated by straight shelves, governed by the shopkeeper’s panoptic gaze. Faith in the grandfather clock; faith in the ordered rhythm of time. His characters are confined by two covers and a solid spine; characters birthed by the cleanliness of the printed word. Do I envy them?

On a bench in the cracked concrete plaza I sit. Two-toed pigeons stumble around my sandals, approaching my ankles with increasing pluck. Beyond the plaza’s wrought-iron fence, nighthawks amble about, searching in the dark for a place, a person. This ramshackle city, unbound by bookbinds. This ramshackle city, no longer plied by vigilant eyes. Where Francia once strolled sit blocks of government buildings dusted over by old age. Dead tramway tracks and disposed dictators. But something still holds it all together. On the bench, in my notebook, I write, tangled power lines, I think.

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