Elkin and his brother (s)

A few years ago a guy named Elkin came up to me in front of La Tampa in Jardin and tried to make my acquaintance. This abrupt behavior (especially here in Colombia where things tend to be a bit more formal) sent up a red flag but he was just a little feller and I figured I’d humor him for a while.

He said (surprise…surprise) that his brother was down in the hospital and he needed money to visit him and bring him a few things. I said I was sorry about his brother but had no spare cash. He kept on.

“I want to go and see him. It could be the last time,” he squawked.

“Oh, it’s serious then?”

“Yes, he boinged, “could you spare 50,000 pesos ($17 or so)?

“No, Elkin, I already told you I wasn’t going to give you any money.” But I am sorry about your brother.”

“But he has cancer, señor! He’s my only living brother. The others dropped dead of tuberculosis and the measles years ago. Please…just 20,000 then?”

Elkin, I’m beginning to think that you only want my money,” I jabbed, “because you think I’m a rich gringo and such.”

“Oh no señor. How could you think that? I’m just stretched thin and need to visit him before it’s too late. If you…”

“Where is he? Which hospital is he in?” I counterattacked.

Now I could see scammer’s wheels spinning inside that all too transparent cranium. This loutish hoodwinker! I did not know these accusing words in Spanish or I would have crucified him right on the spot. I had to hear more before I struck, plus I was mildly impressed by this little man’s brash hullabaloo.

Sly without the trump card, lacking even a butterfly net, catching caterpillar collapses without wings – This is your man Elkin. A myriad of minute conscience, delusional deception with grandiose cajones? Perhaps. Delicately, like the sound of heavy coins dropping into a metal bucket from the roof of a 5-story building, he went on.

“Just 20,000?” he asked flinching at this stubborn gringo. Most of his marks were either afraid of him or just wanted him to take his leave. That could translate into beer money or maybe even a bottle of Aguardiente on the weekends when business zipped along at full throttle.

“Ave Maria!,” he must have thought. “This was getting involved.” He hesitated, analyzing the state of affairs. This could quickly get sticky and complicated. He could tip his hand if not careful.

“In this hospital, here in Jardin,” he nodded, taking my hand with false intent and not letting go until I gingerly pushed and more forcefully pulled, escaping from his grip without shifting weight. I bent his wrist ever-so-slightly in a rear-guard maneuver. He winced.

He was beginning to aggravate  me, to the passing attention of some people I know in town, who were nursing cold beers nearby. Even his smile had now become annoying. It was yellow, maybe for all the lies.

But I am a guest in this country and should conduct myself as one.

“Elkin, I have an idea,” I said. “Let’s both go and visit him right now,” I said taking his arm this time. “It’s only a short walk away.”

He stopped, stuck like Br’er Rabbit to the tar baby, caught like a rat in a Pompeii of peanut butter. He looked from side to side as if someone in the plaza crowd might rescue him before he drowned.

“Oh, no, señor, he recanted…not now. I can’t. I have an appointment. I cannot….”

Then I heard my friend bellow from his perch in front of the bar:

“Hey Elkin: Enough,” he pleaded. “You croon the same song with different lyrics! And I, in all these years don’t remember you having a brother. You never even had a pet fish. Now if you don’t back off, your next “appointment” will be in the hospital. Se va! (go away!)”

And off slid our warped warrior, the champion debater, the fiscal wizard of Antioquia who could bamboozle these gringos with just the turn of a phrase. He seemed not the least bit offended by the inglorious banishment, keeping his eyebrows lurched and his posture tense for other los cadidos (naive ones) on the street. It’s a numbers game, heh Elkin?

Nonetheless we drank an acerbic toast to Elkin with tragos de anejo (shots of aged rum) lightly peppered with heart-of-sarcasm. We had another, after enduring an impulsive obituary about a deceased logger that I had never met.

*****

One afternoon, two years later, Elkin again approached me up on Calle 12 and told me he was suffering from cancer. I had already seen him coming down the sidewalk and crossing the street to my side. This time I was ready for this jackal of all trades.

Sadly and dramatically, as he wove fantastic, his story was concocted: He now had cancer. He had barely a week to live. As proof he removed his sombrero and showed me his close-cropped hair. It didn’t look chemo-radiated. It just looked like a howler monkey had gotten ahold of some dull scissors. He didn’t remember me from years ago because all gringos look the same.

Amused, and somewhat impressed with his blubbering, I went along avoiding any remote reference to finances. He kept up crisp dialogue, quite politely getting to the meat of the issue. He continued trimming the fat until I stopped him like a hurled, ripe mango hitting a steadfast garden wall.

“So, Elkin,” I began “How is your brother, you know the one that was in the hospital with cancer a few years ago?”

“Who?” he blurted out, taken aback by the shift in the dialogue and my familiarity with his name. His con confronted, his armor extinguished, his plan now plummeted like clown pants tumbling down to his boney knees.

“Your brother…your brother, man. You said you had to see him for the last time and asked me for money to bring him a few things. Don’t you remember me?”

Now he was perplexed. He looked around for familiar redoubts. He shifted his stance.

“I don’t have a brother señor,” he frowned. “But I do have an uncle with diabetes. He is in the same hospital in Andes where I am getting treated. Maybe you could spare a few pesos so I could bring him a few things.”

“No, but I’d buy you a bus ticket out of town if you promise never to come back,” I mumbled.

“OK,” he smiled.

– Kevin Haley

     

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