Touch, taste, hearing, sight and smell – these are the five traditional senses. In this specially commissioned portfolio, five writers – Chloe Aridjis, Fernando A. Flores, Diana Hamilton, Alexandra Kleeman and Madeleine Thien – complicate our individual and shared experiences of these ‘outward wits’, as they were once known, in pieces of short fiction and non-fiction. They do not limit themselves to any one sense; instead, they draw on our ‘inward wits’, which the 16th-century British poet Stephen Hawes, in his ‘The Pastime of Pleasure’ (1509), identified as common sense, imagination, fantasy, instinct and memory.
El Ritmo de la Noche was not so much a rhythm – although that’s still debated – but a salsa, its initial distribution traced back to two high-school dropouts from the Valley. One of them, Octavio H., was sleeping through his sophomore English class and audibly gasped when the teacher banged on his desk to awaken him. As Octavio’s eyes dilated to see his peers laughing at his expense, he got up and said: ‘This class is nothing, I don’t need to be here. ’Cause you know what? I make money. I go fishing at the canal and then sell the fish to the store. I don’t need any of this.’ He walked out of the door as the teacher watched with her arms crossed. There had previously been problems with Octavio and since, in those days, the campus was open, she let him go as he pleased.
Octavio H. wandered out of the school, past the graveyard, through the wheat field, until he ended up in front of a junked-out Oldsmobile with many chilli trees growing through and around it. Hunched over the driver’s seat, picking chillies into a pail, was Octavio’s friend and business partner, Alex Z. Octavio leaned on the open door and whistled in a shrill way. Alex jumped back, startled, and honked the horn with his ass. They both laughed, shut the door to the Oldsmobile and made their way toward the trailer of the woman they called the Astronaut, due to the old space helmet she kept among potted plants on her mosquito-netted front porch.
Upon arrival, she was already waiting on them with a large styrofoam ice chest. She took the pail of chillies from Alex, pointed at the chest and the two boys opened it. Many jars were stacked inside together, and steam rose from the bottom because their contents were hot. On every jar was a white label with the words ‘El Ritmo de la Noche’ scrawled between two shoddily sketched musical notes, which resembled hockey sticks. Alex and Octavio took turns pushing a rusting wheelbarrow holding the styrofoam chest until shortly before dusk, when they arrived at the club Pasito Tun Tun. The manager, Roel, was expecting the boys, and two young men only a few years older than Octavio and Alex took the chest from the wheelbarrow and carried it out back.
Roel, with grave concern, asked the boys about the Astronaut – how she seemed with her health. The boys looked at each other and agreed she appeared fine. Roel nodded, gave them each a sealed envelope, a free shot of the strong stuff, then excused himself – he had a club to run, he said.
Octavio and Alex opened their envelopes about 15 metres from the club and counted the money. ‘I’d make more sticking to my fish,’ Octavio said. ‘And it’s less work.’ They agreed to team up again and, before parting ways, set a time they’d meet the following morning.
Back at the club, in the manager’s office, Roel smoked a cigarette as he stared into the open ice chest. He picked up a jar and, with his right thumb, traced the hockey stick musical notes. ‘El Ritmo de la Noche,’ he said to himself. Saying the words aloud brought a mysterious breeze into the closed room, as if he’d read them from a sacred book. He put out his cigarette and sealed the chest, then instructed the two young men on his payroll to wrap it carefully in trash bags and carry it onto his truck, which was loaded with other similar packages. Roel didn’t trust anybody to make this shipment, so he took a shot of the same stuff he’d given the boys, then drove the truck north himself.
He made it past customs without a problem and, in the town of Fal, met up with his man in an uninhabited mauve shack. His man inspected El Ritmo de la Noche, really took his time with it. Finally, as if coming to this conclusion reluctantly, his man said he could probably extract a good dance number out of it. Maybe a hit single.
So, it was agreed, and there, in that mauve shack, they opened every jar of El Ritmo de la Noche and boiled everything down, trapped the vapours and stored them in vials. Roel then paid his man and moved the vials not only down south and farther north, but to every major city in the tri-state area. Soon, El Ritmo de la Noche was the big hit of the summer, then the year. It was played in every hip club; people danced to El Ritmo de la Noche in the streets. Nobody could believe this hit and, when the royalties came in, neither did Roel, who had to admit he’d scored big.
Years went by, then decades, and Roel felt he’d put old properties, marriages and politicians behind him – after everything, he was grateful old investments like El Ritmo de la Noche were still paying off. He was thinking of this one day in particular as he stared at an empty jar he hadn’t seen in a long time. It had a white label with hockey stick musical notes on and had recently been sent to him with a little message inside, requesting to meet.
Roel’s head butler appeared in the office studio and announced: ‘Sir, your guest has arrived.’ Roel got up from his leather perching chair and greeted the balding, stout man entering his office. ‘So, it is you, Octavio. We meet again.’
The following evening, after finding it odd that Roel hadn’t come downstairs all day, the head butler found him dead, slumped over his leather chair in the office studio. When questioned by medics and the police, the head butler recounted bringing the young man into his office as the last time he’d seen him alive. He couldn’t remember his name, and didn’t catch him leaving, but mentioned the jar labelled El Ritmo de la Noche as something peculiar. There didn’t appear to be foul play, and it was later determined Roel suffered a heart attack. When the head butler and the police officers looked for the jar labelled El Ritmo de la Noche in the office studio, it was nowhere to be found.
First published in Issue 205