“Does Hector Prima live around here?”
My host’s expression went cool. He was a middle-aged man with a wide face and shoulders and pale stubble on his cheeks and chin that held the promise of a lush beard. In the four hours I’d spent in his home since the evacuated rail from Nove Mesto had deposited me in Sagrado, he’d been nothing but jovial and expansive. His warmth and his pleasure in having a guest had lulled me into feeling safe.
I had overplayed my hand.
“Who?” he asked.
“I think he’s a writer my sister likes,” I said, motioning vaguely. “She said he was in this part of the country somewhere. But I may have that wrong.”
“She is mistaken. Hector Prima is a pen name. There are rumors that he lives here, but they’re not true. No one knows who really writes his essays. He could be anyone.”
“That’s interesting. Is he good?” As if I had not read everything Prima had put on the web. As if I had not read thousands of both analyses of his work and speculations on who he might be. As if I were not, in a sense, a hunter. A stalker. I was driven by an enthusiasm I couldn’t explain, except that when I read his words, I recognized the world he described and my own unhappiness in it. Reading Prima felt like being seen.
“He has a following. Strange people. We see them now and again,” my host said with a shrug. “We have a great number of writers and artists, you know. We’re a very vibrant place, now that the money’s come.”
“It’s why I’m here,” I said with a smile, and the warmth was back in his eyes.
“We have rumba bands. Many, many rumba bands. There was a fight three years ago, when two different bands scheduled concerts on the same day. The police had to come in. You heard about that, maybe?”
“I think I did,” I lied.
“We are very passionate about our music here,” my host said, nodding to himself and watching me to see how I would react. Whether there was a glimmer of interest in my eyes. It was no different in Nove Mesto. I knew what he wanted.
“Do you play in a band?” I asked.
If he had been pleasant and jovial before, now he became incandescent. “A bit. Only a little. I sing, you know. Here, we’ve just put together a new album. Let me play it for you, yes?”
“I’d like that,” I said.
It was the price of my hunt. I wanted something, and I would accept a great many things I didn’t want in order to get it. I listened and smiled until evening, and then I went out.
How to describe Sagrado at night?
I came from a city that had known want, but also wealth. Poverty, but also comfort. The richest sections of my home were indistinguishable from the high-income districts of Milan and Paris. Even our slums had pavement on the roads and water in the taps. Sagrado was rising to that level now.
The streets were too narrow for cars. The traffic that passed between the thick-stuccoed buildings consisted of people on foot or riding bicycles. Stray dogs watched from the alleyways. The streetlights were built from repurposed emergency solar lamps, bright yellow plastic shaped like downward-facing daisies. Cables hung over the rooftops, piping power from the day’s wind and sunlight stored in hundreds of batteries to homes and clubs, public kitchens and mud-floored dance halls. Drones hummed overhead, carrying glowing advertisements built from recycled medical tablets. In the doorways and on the corners, children and women held platters, stepping out whenever someone came close.
I have the best flan you’ve ever tasted. Bean chowder; just try it and you’ll never want anything else. Baklava. Curried egg. Always cheap ingredients. Rarely fish. Never meat. Music filled the air like birdsong. Some live, the musicians sweating over print-fab guitars and hammering on drums made from pottery and plastic. Some recorded but remixed, manipulated, remade with the personality of whoever had speakers loud enough to drown out their neighbors. One club had a child of no more than 6 standing at the door with a false, practiced grin, grabbing at people’s hands and tugging at them to come in. The scars of poverty were everywhere, but few of the wounds.
A man in filthy pants and the paper shirt that relief workers hand out sat with his back against a yellow wall, his jaw working in silent but passionate conversation with himself. Another ran down the street shouting after a woman that he hadn’t meant to spend it all and that there would be more next week and why was she so angry when there was going to be more next week? An old woman swept the street outside her little bodega while the ads in her windows painted her face with blue and pink and blue again.
Basic income had come to Sagrado five years before, freeing it from want but not, it seemed, from wanting.
I stopped to ask the old woman if I was going the right way and showed her the map on my cell. “I am looking for Julia Paraiis.”
She made a sour face but pointed me down a side street even narrower than the main thoroughfare. “Five down, blue building. Third floor.”
I followed her directions, wondering whether it had been wise for me to come so far unaccompanied. But when I knocked at the door on the third floor of the blue building, the woman who answered looked like the one I’d seen on the net.
“What?” she said.
“We talked on the forum,” I said.
“You’ve come about Hector?” she said.
In answer, I held out my hand, the roll of cash in my palm like an apple. She plucked it from me, her eyes softening.
“You’ve been saving,” she said.
“It’s everything I have.”
“You have more coming,” she said dismissively. “I’ll call for you the day after tomorrow.”
And like that, it was done. She closed the door, I walked away, turning back toward the street, and my room, and the hope that this time I would find him.
We were a community of a sort. The hunters after Hector. There were more theories of who and where he was than I could count. I’d looked for him in Rome and Nice. Evora. I’d worked cleaning out brambles and hauling contaminated gravel from an old power plant for extra money to fund my dream of sitting across from the man, of telling him how much his words meant to me. Of breathing the same air.
Sagrado had always been one of the possibilities, but never the most likely. I had shared neither my growing suspicions of it nor my searches outside the community on the forums. Nor my discovery of a woman who claimed she could arrange my introduction, if I was ready to pay for it.
My host had described my quarters as a studio, but it was less than that: an adobe shed that shared one wall with the house proper and was just large enough for a cot. It was clean, painted a bright and cheerful pink. A sprig of rosemary tied with a white ribbon hung on the wall as a decoration, and it gave the small space a pleasant scent. The pillow was flat. The blanket, rough. If I wanted to use the bathroom or shower, I had to go to the main house and risk another hour or two of my host’s rumba. The sounds of voices and guitars–and once, a man’s enraged shout–mixed with songs of crickets and cicadas.
I opened my book, its screen my only light.
When I stopped with the heroin–this was, God, 30 years ago–I expected the aches, the illness, the craving deep as bones. Everyone knows how that comes. You anticipate it. Brace against it. Get ready. The thing I didn’t look for was how empty I felt when I was clean. Everyone, always, we are looking for our lives to have meaning. What did the one man say? The Jew? “Those with a ‘why’ to live can bear almost any ‘how.'” I think that’s right. When I was a junkie, I had my why. Always my why was to get more junk, and I endured terrors for it.
This age, this generation, traded its demons for the void. When I was young we were poor, and we are poor again now but differently. When I was young we were afraid to starve, to be without medicines or homes, and the teeth of it gave us meaning. Now we fear being less important than our neighbors. We lost our junkie’s need, and we don’t know what to put in its place. So we make art or food or music or sport and scream for someone to notice us. We invent new gods and cajole each other into worshipping. All the vapid things that the wealthy did–the surgeries and the fashions and pretension–we understand them now. We are doing all the same things, but not as well, because we have less and we’re still new at it.
This? It’s the emptiness of our time, and the only thing worse is everything that came before it.
I let my eyes drift closed.
The deaths of some extreme alpinists dominated the midmorning news cycle. Images of the mountain range they had been climbing appeared on the newsfeeds like blossoms in springtime, overlaid with swaths of color to track their intended path through the area with the most landslides. A woman whose father died on the mountain–dark-haired and fighting back tears as she stood before the cameras–spoke the customary phrases. Climbing meant everything to him. He died doing what he loved. I curled under the rough blanket, listening to the sounds of Sagrado’s streets and feeling the same uncomfortable mix of schadenfreude and envy that usually traveled in the wake of these optional tragedies. The romance of death by adventure.
I faced a less newsworthy ordeal. Three long weeks stretched out before the next disbursement, leaving a gap of 14 days with nowhere to sleep, no ticket back to my flat in Nove Mesto, no way to buy my own food, and only water from public fountains.
I knew tricks, of course. Ever since the rolls began, poor had meant poor management. Not everyone possessed the skills to shepherd their allotment all the way to the next one. The temptation to buy a cigar or a steak in the first days after the money came translated itself into missed meals and fasting in the long, brutal last days before the next payment, and sympathy came thin on the ground. The ancient lie that the blame for poverty belonged wholly to the poor had changed to truth now.
Experience had taught me that the need to be more important than our neighbors could be exploited to sustain someone through the thinnest times. If I was careful. I strolled through the evening streets much as before, accepting the offered tidbits only here and there. Every third one. Or less. I smiled and nodded to the men and girls that haunted the little restaurants and family kitchens, encouraging but not too encouraging. And never grateful.
We exchanged the ragged sustenance I needed for the illusion they needed: that someone cared what they did. Will feed for applause. If I didn’t convince them I was enjoying their rice cake or stew more than whatever their neighbors were offering up, my end of our unspoken bargain failed. And that led quickly to the samples shifting out of my reach. Everyone wanted to feel desired. No one cared about someone who came only out of need. And so, like a con artist, I pretended not to need. Pretended to appreciate what they gave me.
It thrilled me.
I could have been safe in Nove Mesto with food enough, water enough, warmth enough. Instead, I lived by my wits and savored the suspense, the metal-sharp taste of not knowing how I would survive. Of the moment just before the revelation. This Julia Paraiis who claimed to have the information I sought could as easily be a grifter preying on my credulity. Or I might leave Sagrado with a secret. An experience I’d been searching for over the course of years.
The dead alpinists, the people offering food on the corners, the bands coaxing us all to come dance to their music, my host and his awful rumba, and me. All of us struggled against the same void, and Hector Prima sang our longing like a siren.
I passed one day and then the next, each hour feeling longer than the one before. And more charged with promise. With the lengthening evening of the second day, my anticipation stuttered, shifted, and grew darker. I lay on my rented cot, afraid to sleep in case I missed Julia Paraiis or some agent of hers. No one came.
I woke on the morning of the third day caught between embarrassment and regret. I told myself that she might still come, and I tried not to feel my humiliation. I managed for almost an hour before it bloomed into rage.
As I marched down the street from my host’s house, I felt the eyes of Sagrado watching me. The stranger who had been haunting them for the past few days, with no apparent agenda, now alive with outrage. Suspicions welled up in half-recognized faces. The old woman at the bodega crossed her scarred arms and shook her head at me. A girl who had offered me a sample of her father’s bean soup the night before skipped along after me, laughing at my distress. What I meant to them was changing. It would lead to hunger later, but the idea of later had abandoned me.
I went back to the blue building.
Her door looked shabbier in the daylight and in my state of mind. Scratches and streaks of orange paint that I hadn’t noticed before seemed obvious now. I knocked first, shouted her name. Noises came–footsteps, the creak of a board, voices–maybe from the other side of the door, maybe from the other apartments. Then I pounded, putting my shoulder into it and bruising my knuckles.
I didn’t recognize the man who opened the door. He stared at me, his jaw set, his eyes hard. White button-down shirt with stains in the armpits.
“Where’s Julia?” I said.
“Gone,” the man said. “You should go too.”
“Are you Hector Prima?”
It landed. A flinch in the man’s eyes, like he’d suffered a little electric shock. “There’s no Hector here. You should go.”
He tried to close the door, but I pushed in. My voice shook and I couldn’t say whether with fear or excitement. “When is she coming back?” He shoved me but to no effect. “I tracked Prima here. To this town. Julia said she knew him. Said she’d make the introduction if I paid her. Well, I paid her. Now I want the introduction.”
“No Hector Prima.”
“I will go to every fucking person in this town and tell them what happened. I will stay outside your door for weeks. Months. As long as it takes.”
The man looked down, stepped back. The room on the other side of the door looked as small as my own flat. As worn and sweat-limp. I looked around for some sign of her, but found nothing. The man refused to meet my eyes, and his breath grew ragged as I looked through his rooms, or else hers.
“Where is she?”
“Gone,” he said.
“When will she be back?” I heard the rage in my own voice, and it sounded like whining.
Now he looked at me straight on, eye to eye. “Because she brought you here. I kicked her out. She took your money with her. She took my money too. You can’t talk about Hector Prima around here. If you do … if you do, it all stops.”
I sat on his couch. It squeaked and wheezed under me. “Are you him?”
“No,” the man said, then heaved a sigh. He sat on the floor, his back against the wall. With his knees up, his arms wrapped around them, he looked fragile. “But I write down what … he says. I don’t tell. And if it comes out I was doing it, he’ll stop talking to me.”
“I don’t understand,” I said, even though I almost did.
The man shook his head. “Was a few years ago. The rolls had just opened, and everybody was getting used to getting payments. Starting to think maybe it would last, you know? Like it wouldn’t go away. Everybody happy, right? Because we all got money now. Only this one old dog says it’s all bullshit, or kind of. I didn’t understand, and then later I started to. Made a point of hanging out, listening. Talking with, you know? And then … started writing it down. Posting it. Made up a name.”
He nodded. “Was because it said something. Only then it got where people read it. A lot of people. Eight hundred thousand views when I put one up, and then 8 million the next, yeah? And some of them are like you. I got scared. I told Julia about it, and she figured she could sell me out.”
“To someone like me,” I said.
“If it gets back what I’m doing, won’t be any Hector Prima, because there won’t be any more talking. So you can’t tell anyone.”
“Will you introduce me?” I asked. But I already knew the answer.
The man and I sat together in silence for a time. I felt a kinship between us, a shared heroism that outranked right or wrong. He and I both shouted against an overpowering emptiness that most people didn’t recognize. He’d lifted a betrayal of trust and privacy to the level of art. I had committed to my enthusiasm for the work past the point of being a stalker. We transgressed together, each dependent upon the other for the sense that something in our lives mattered. We were not well, but at least we were sick in company.
I sniffed back my tears and stood. His eyes tracked me as I walked to the blue door, opened it.
“Have you ever heard of the hedonic treadmill?” I asked.
“Look it up. Maybe mention it to him. I was going to talk to him about it,” I said. And then, stepping out to the hallway, “Keep up the good work.”
At the intersection I stopped and sat on the curb. The girl who had skipped along behind me was in the mouth of an alleyway with three other children. They were playing a game with stones and a length of twine. The old woman swept the dust of her shop into the street. The late-morning sun turned the roofs of the town silver and too bright to look at for long. I couldn’t bring myself to believe how little time had passed. An hour–less than an hour–and a lifetime.
The story of my life had reached an inflection point here at the roadside in a little town far from my home. I had spent years tracking Hector Prima, and I would never seek him out again. I would be homeless until the next disbursement came, and then I’d be hungry until I made up the cost of my train ticket home. I would suffer, but I would suffer for a reason, so the prospect wasn’t so bad.
I took out my book, turned up the contrast against the brightness of the day, and opened my folder of Prima’s work, skimming over the words without taking them in until a passage caught my eye.
Children still starve. When I was young we starved from poverty. Now we starve from having parents who spend their allotment on drink or drugs or pretty clothes that make them seem to have more than they do. Bad parents. Bad luck. Bad ideas. Money only ever fixes the troubles that money can fix. All the others stay on.
Yes, yes, yes, we suffer less. We suffer differently. But we still suffer over smaller things, and it distracts us. We begin to forget how precious butter and bread are. How desperate we once were to have them. Spices that meant something deep to my mother or me? In a generation they’ll only be tastes. They won’t mean anything more than their moment against the tongue. We should nourish our children not just with food but with what food means. What it used to mean. We should cherish the memories of our poverty. Ghosts and bones are made to remind us to take joy in not being dead yet.
A bicycle hummed down the street, the chain clacking as it passed me. The old woman’s broom hissed against the pavement. Music played somewhere close, the bass outreaching all the other sounds. And I sat and held something precious in my hands. Something more fragile than I had guessed when I came to Sagrado. I had chosen not to break it, and as much as it had meant to me when I came, it meant more to me now. I’d come to find Hector Prima, and I would leave without hope of coming back or guiding my fellow hunters down the track to find him.
And I wondered: When I got home, what would I do instead? I must have made a noise, because the old woman stopped and stared at me. She lifted her chin in rough greeting.
“You all right, cousin?”
“Fine,” I said. And then, “A little hungry.”
She shrugged and went back to sweeping. “At least you know it.”
Tales From an Uncertain Future