A NOVELLA by Alison Turner
  1  Filtered
2  Overexposed
3  Aberration
4  Refraction
5  Interpretation
  About the Author  |  echapbook.com  |  July 2014 Fiction Issue

5. Interpretation

The first thing Will used to think when one person ordered two drinks was that they were scared to look alone, but he was wrong every time. Someone else always sat down eventually. This woman had ordered a Paceña and a tamarind juice, and played with a corner of the menu.

“Did you want some food?” Will asked.

She had been at the bar for half an hour without a book — usually single women came in with a book — and regularly checked over her shoulder at the door. After a few sentences of small talk, Will felt he had been mostly right about her: American, first time in Bolivia, and ready to go home.

It was his last night of work at the Travelers Casa in La Paz, Bolivia, where he’d been bartender for a month. His predecessor, a Scottish woman with large thighs and curly hair, had impressed him with her ability to know basics about people before talking to them. He wasn’t as discerning as she had been, but trusted a few stereotypes: anyone in bright outfits purchased from the vendors outside the hostel was Israeli; someone asking for recycling was German; and anyone requesting drip coffee (sorry, no) was American.

“I’ll wait,” she said. She looked uncomfortable, like she was too tired to sit up straight on the bar stool but refused to let herself stop trying.

“Long day?” he said. He had gotten pretty good at playing bartender. He paid attention to whether someone wanted to talk or needed to get lost in their own head. La Paz could be intimidating, intoxicating, and lonely as hell.

“Not long,” she said. “Just a lot.” She pulled blonde hair over one shoulder.

He knew what she meant. He had decided La Paz was a city where your mind couldn’t stay still because something strange continuously surfaced. He had started his trip with an open return date in La Paz because that was the cheapest flight from Atlanta, and had reserved the cheapest bunk online at the Travelers Casa for three days. His first day in country he didn’t leave the hostel. He wandered from the bar/restaurant to the lounge, to the TV in the corner by the stairs, while travelers from everywhere talked about biking Death Road, visiting the prison, how fresh squeezed juice was called zumo, empanadas, parks, art museums, scarves, and necklaces made out of wayruro seeds, and it sounded like Bolivia was six different countries. Stories and suggestions bounced so fast he couldn’t catch one, and deciding where to start was like trying to locate the key in the “Find It” books he hated when he was a kid, but that every adult kept giving him as gifts.

“Wouldn’t have it any other way though, huh?” he said. The woman smiled, but didn’t look at him.

After slipping into the job at the Casa, Will started to explore the city. On one of his first days out he had peeled off from Prado, a street constantly choked with people, and almost smacked into a short, skinny kid with a black mask over the bottom half of his face. A bank robber, Will had thought, or a gang member, and either way he would be mugged. The kid mumbled something again and again, holding up a wooden block and mimed a scrubbing motion in the air: shine your shoes? Whenever Will tried to explain La Paz to people back home, he wrote about that boy.

The door opened: it was Manuel, Will’s boss for four more hours. Manuel hung the broom back up in the cleaning closet, waved distractedly at Will, and left. Will had been worried all day about telling him he would leave soon. When he finally did, after the lunch “rush” of three paninis, five beers, and one omelet, Manuel had said, Okay, he’d put up an ad for the position. An hour ago, Manuel told Will that someone had answered the ad and that he could show him around tonight and leave tomorrow.

“Do you mind if I leave this here,” the woman said, pointing at the two drinks. “If anyone comes in looking for Jenny, tell him I’ll be right back.”

“Course,” Will said. She looked more worried than tired or angry, which made him think whoever kept her waiting wasn’t a boyfriend. She had been the only one in there at 7:30 on a Saturday night, and the quiet hummed after her.


The place filled quickly after eight. Four of the six tables were occupied, as well as two of the five bar stools. Will had pulled Jenny’s drinks protectively towards the register, but no one had asked for her.

People mostly ordered drinks, not food, so Will didn’t have to ask Manuel for help. It would have been hard to work next to Manuel; Will’s plan had been to offer two weeks, and suddenly he was out tomorrow. The new bartender would need his bunk.

A lanky guy with a messy beard and a hoody that said Crested Butte walked in. American, Will knew. The newcomer looked around the room, and walked to what Manuel advertised on websites as a lounge and book exchange (one sofa, easy chair, coffee table, and book shelf in the corner of the bar/restaurant). He scanned the books and pulled off The Odyssey — Will had tried to read that copy all month, and that morning had admitted defeat and returned it.

The door opened: Jenny. Will watched her examine the room; she looked more stressed out than before, constantly moving her hands as if they weren’t allowed to rest. She saw the lounge last, and smiled.

Jenny sat on the couch, and she and the lanky guy hugged, from the side. They couldn’t be dating.

The two tables of French paid with a two hundred boliviano bill. It was about thirty bucks, but too much for the vendors outside the hostel to break — tourists constantly tried to get change at the hostel. His register couldn’t break it so he jogged out to the front desk where Manuel played Minesweeper on the hostel’s fastest computer. While counting out the bills and coins, Manuel said, “Did you meet the new guy?”

“He’s here already?” Will said.

“He went inside,” Manuel said, pointing to the restaurant. “He is like, this,” he said, holding his hand a foot above his head, “and, this.” He rubbed his chin.

It must be the guy in the lounge with The Odyssey, Will thought. The guy who made Jenny wait.

“I’ll talk to him,” he said.

“Will? Please have a free beer for me — we will miss you.”

Manuel knew Will had free beers from him on a regular basis, but it was nice of him to say something.

Will returned the change and the two tables left. Now patches of Jenny and the new guy’s conversation reached Will at the bar. They spoke about places and both of them used their arms to describe size or shape. They laid down stories like playing cards, and if Will had to guess he’d say they’d been apart for a long time.

He remembered Jenny’s drinks by the register, and refilled her glass with tamarind zumo. So many people liked the stuff. To him, it was sour and he couldn’t help picturing the fruits’ pods that looked like gray, lumpy sausages. He’d have to tell the new guy that the tamarind vendor two blocks down gave a better deal on filling the jug, and that when he carries it back to the Casa he should take the back way so the closer vendor doesn’t see.

“You found him,” Will said. He put the juice and beer on the coffee table.

Jenny looked up and Will barely recognized her by her calm.

“Thanks, I forgot about these,” she said. She handed the guy the beer and said, “Cheers.”

The guy raised the bottle up towards Will and said, “Thanks, man.”

“Did I hear you’re the new guy?” Will said.

“Dane,” he said, quickly, and held out his hand.

“New guy for what?” Jenny said. She stiffened her back straight, the way she had done earlier on the barstool.

“I’ll come up in a bit,” Dane said. He looked like he got caught cheating.

“What’s he talking about?” Jenny said to Dane.

Will retreated to the bar. Perhaps he shouldn’t have said anything, but he couldn’t have known that Jenny, whoever she was, hadn’t known. The place closed at midnight, so Dane only had a few hours left to be shown around. He should also tell him, Dane, that if anyone asked about coca he should tell them to buy from Tuto, the quiet man in the stall selling phone cards and DVDs. If Tuto’s not there, the new guy should say to tourists, wait less than three minutes and he’ll appear from somewhere.

For less than a minute Jenny and Dane were the only customers in the lounge. Will couldn’t hear what they said, but they sounded focused, as if they made a list of necessary supplies. Jenny passed him a colorful handful of bolivianos.

The second after-dinner rush stormed in, tourists wanting to drink and play games and trade stories. A group of Israelis pulled two tables together, and four Koreans ordered eight beers. Will opened bottles, poured cheap wine, and heated up empanadas.

When he got a moment to rest, Jenny was gone from the lounge. Dane sat alone, with one arm on top of the couch, facing the wall. He was still for several seconds, then pushed himself up and approached the bar.

The thing about not being from here, Will thought, was that if he ever came back he’d have to start all over again to figure it out.

  © Alison Turner, 2014


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