Stone Cowboy on the High Plains

A Short Story

TWO DAYS BEFORE HE WAS RELEASED FOREVER FROM El Panóptico Prison, in La Paz, Bolivia, Roger the Stone Cowboy became aware that he had been talking to God. A Swedish mercy nurse who spoke terrible Spanish was binding up his forearm where one of the troll crazies had sliced him, in an argument in which Roger himself had played no part. As the earnest, homely blonde woman worked, he could feel his pulse thunder the length of the hurt arm. They were in a room the trolls called the infirmary, which meant it had a bed nobody slept in. (All Bolivians were trolls, Roger had decided a long time ago. They were short and dark and strange, not like people, really, but humanlike to a certain extent.) Light the color of clear, thin honey came through the single window high in the prison wall and dripped down on them. Roger felt sticky.

The honey light dripped, his pulse thundered, the mercy nurse babbled bad Spanish. An odd lull had occurred in the afternoon bitch and hum in El Panóptico. Before the woman released his arm, Roger became aware that he was saying something into that lull: Give me back my heart. It was not really what he would have thought of as a prayer. Definitely it was no prayer. He didn’t care what it was. More interesting was where he was sending it. In a slow roll, like revelation, he realized that he had indeed been mumbling to God. No answer came back, of course. That would have been too much to expect. He returned to his pallet in a kind of daze.

He was giving up dope. All kinds, not just the coke cigarettes the trolls smoked, called pitillos. All shit, shit in all its manifestations. That was a lot for a Stone Cowboy who had made himself high, by his own best estimate, in twenty-three countries and twenty-five American states over a period of more than ten years. So he was giving up a lot, and that was hard. He had some insurance, but he wasn’t touching it. He wished he had remembered to keep track of how many days he had stayed down now, but he hadn’t. His mind had become his body, and it was acting funny. Then that mumbling.

“When they let you out, in two days, what are you going to do?” the Swedish woman asked him.

He shook his head, not because he didn’t want to be sociable but because he was preoccupied. His mind had become his body.

“Did you hear me?”

“I heard you.” You you you you you . . . et cetera.

“Do you have any idea of where you are going to?” she persisted.

Give me back my heart is what he thought, but he said nothing to her, because he did not want her to misunderstand him.

“Will the people from your consulate help you?”

No way, Josefeen. He would not go back to Gringolandia. Not until he had calmed down a little more. He knew the trolls wanted him out of Bolivia, but when the viceconsul showed up to escort him to his doom, he slipped, skipped, did not trip. It was easy.

He had only a few bucks in troll money, so he had to get a job. First to eat and sleep, then money to move on with. He had his insurance but wasn’t touching any of it. So he took a yellow unpsychedelic bus with black stripes up out of the canyon of La Paz, up the highway toward the Altiplano. He wanted to get a good view of the Andes, something he had craved his whole time in jail. The Altiplano was a desert that had gotten lost, squeezed in between two ranges of the Andes at 14,000 feet. The ultimate natural high was what a French doper in El Panóptico had called it. Real people couldn’t survive long at that altitude, just llamas and alpacas. And trolls. Real people needed air with something in it their lungs could chew on.

Three quarters of the way up the autopista the bus broke down. The engine shuddered like the French doper had done one night, and that was it. The trolls filed off the bus like religious fatalists, and Roger followed last, because he had to. Most of the trolls went up the hillside on a footpath alongside a concrete culvert down which no water coursed. A few walked the highway in hopes of a ride. The driver, who apparently had no plan, sat by the roadside and chainsmoked cigarettes. Roger watched his face for a sign of distress, but none was there. That was a troll for you. He wished the man would offer him a cigarette, but forget that. When his half pack of smokes was gone, the driver stood up and left, walking on the highway berm without looking back or hoping for a ride. No good-bye, because no hello. Give me back my heart.

Roger crossed the highway and sat down cross-legged on an outcropping of shaly rock. Below him, in the brown bowl of the canyon, the lights were going on in La Paz. The skyscrapers downtown looked ridiculously little in the vastness of brown earth around them. Toothpicks of light. On the far horizon the outlines of the mountain Illimani were filed smooth in the twilight. For all the smoothness, the mountain dominated the city. The Indians worshipped the mountains as gods, someone had told him, but that might have been pure bullshit. Some tourist’s stone fantasy. He sat and watched the night fill up the canyon as if he had no place else on earth to be, nothing better to do. The air had begun to get cold.

Eventually he recognized a certain pressure inside his head, as if he were not alone, or as if he had been trying to communicate something to someone without knowing it. It was not a prayer. He remembered the way his body had looked when he had seen it in a mirror by chance at the prison: dead-white skin, pudgy like pastry. A real shock. He looked like weakness in the flesh. He was thirty-seven years old, but ten years’ extra wear seemed to have been compressed into every one of those years. That was the dope, no doubt. He was a veteran cowpoke, a longtime outrider of the world’s high plains.

The pressure and the indefiniteness of the sensations he felt bothered him as he sat. The entrancing scene of La Paz at night, even after his long confinement, could not hold him. Though he wasn’t hopeful, he went back to the highway and stuck out his thumb. Anyway, he felt better moving.

After ten minutes a pickup truck stopped, and the troll driver motioned for him to get into the back, which he did, happily. The truck engine laboring, they climbed the last quarter of the highway out of the canyon and passed through the toll booth, after which Roger expected the driver to stop and let him out. The man, a fat-bellied troll Indian with a flat hatchet nose, did not stop. Because he could think of no convincing reason to get out at any particular place along the road, Roger acquiesced.

They went slowly through the muddy urban sprawl of the city of El Alto. The pickup, whose shock absorbers had died in 1970, bounced like an amusement-park ride. Welcome to El Alto, the City of the Future, read one enthusiastic mural, which displayed troll workers in an attitude of defiance, holding their tools like weapons. If this is the future . . . , Roger said to himself archly, but could think of nothing compelling to complete the thought. What it was was an Altiplano mud village multiplied several hundred times: the same crumbly adobe huts and walls, the same mud streets, the same Indians in their Andean stupor going about the business of surviving. The city lacked only llamas in the streets; he saw plenty of pigs and dogs, and a few oxygen-starved chickens.

The sign said Rio Seco—Dry River—but they were all dry in this part of the country. A real river hadn’t coursed through the Altiplano since the dinosaurs used to wander down to the banks and lap up the polluted water after a hard day defending their territory. With no warning the troll driver stopped at an intersection of two crater-pocked streets. Roger jumped out and down.

“Gracias,” he said to the man, who waved an enormous hand as if irritated and drove off trying to avoid the craters, which were full of dust that rose up in clouds like smoke signals.

ALTHOUGH HE FELT WEAK, ROGER WAS NOT HUNGRY at all, not even thirsty. He liked walking, so he walked, keeping careful track of the things he saw. A blind man with no legs sat on a street corner, holding his upturned hat for change. He must have been a miner: dynamite victims were strewn all over La Paz, like debris from an unnatural disaster. Next to the man was a crippled yellow cat. Roger put some change into the hat, at the same time resisting a strange urge to kick the helpless, ugly cat, whose fur was stiff with dirt.

As he walked he kept up his inventory: A blonde-haired doll like Barbie, with no limbs, lying on her back in the mud like a rape victim. Three men teetering as they shared a bottle of beer, with the one glass building a communal buzz. An underemployed hustler with bad teeth and a tight skirt that could flatter no one. Boys playing soccer in the street with a scuffed ball that needed air. A woman in a heavy shawl, baggy skirts, and a black bowler hat, sitting in a huddle alone in her corner store, next to tall bottles of soda pop in rainbow colors. Alongside those bottles the woman had no face in his imagination, and probably didn’t feel the lack.

Attracted either by her or by the almost cheerful yellow light inside her store, Roger went inside. He bought a small bottle of warm Coca-Cola and poured it into the greasy glass the woman handed him. She had a face after all, but it was the typical face of a troll, illegible and hostile in a disconcerting blank way, just like the Altiplano and the Andes. For a moment Roger wanted not to go, but to be, home.

In prison he had learned a little Aymara, so he spoke to the shopkeeper woman politely in that language.

“Can I find a hotel nearby?”

Surprised to hear the Aymara, but unwilling to show the surprise, she shook her lowered head.

“Anyplace to rent a room?”

“What for?” she asked him in Spanish.

“To sleep, that’s all,” he said in Aymara. He had a good ear; he knew that his accent was pretty good, and that she must be impressed. The pressure in his head was unsettling, as though he had lost his equilibrium. He had felt like this his first few days in La Paz, before his body adjusted to the dehumanizing altitude.

“Why to sleep?” she asked him. Stupid damn question, but that was her way of holding up the conversation. She had spoken in Aymara, which minor triumph of diplomacy pleased Roger unnecessarily.

“Because my body is tired.”His mind was still his body, and it had been invaded.

“You’re a foreigner,” she said, also unnecessarily.

“Guess from where.”

She shook her head. She was about forty, maybe, and she had a striking, angular, womanly face, if you could get used to the idea of the shape of her body, which was a bunch of connected lumps below all those mysterious cloaking skirts.

“I’m a Russian,” he said.


“Then what?”

“A gringo.”

Something in the way the trolls said that word was offensive, as if they were the human ones and Americans were some low breed of dog.

“Why to sleep?” she asked again, so that he knew she liked him.

“Because I’m tired.”

“I have a room in back.”

“I don’t have a lot of money.”

“All the gringos have money.”

“That’s a lie. I was in jail.”

“In El Panóptico?”

“That’s right.”

“Then you’re a drug addict.”

“I’m not. It was a mistake.”


“I’m not a liar, and I’m not a drug addict, but I am a gringo. Is that wrong in some way?”

The last he had had to say in Spanish, because he was reaching the end of his dexterity in Aymara, which was a backwards, upside-down kind of language.

“All the gringos have lots of money. How did you come to Bolivia?”

“By plane.”


“How much for the room, for one night?”

She told him a price that was half what he had expected to hear from her, and he accepted by pulling change from his pocket and placing the coins flat on the wooden countertop.

“I’m really a Russian,” he said. “I’m a Communist. We’re going to invade your country. I’m the first of the first wave. Shock troops, you know? Follow that?”

His body was three hundred and seventy years old. He had his insurance but wasn’t touching it, so he bought from the woman a bottle of troll wine, terrible stuff but strong enough, strong as Robitussin. Because he liked her, he wanted to tell her that he had once been raped by identical redheaded twins in a county jail in Alabama, after he had been picked up for possession of a little dope, but he could not bring himself to that confidence. The twins had had ugly freckles all over their similar fish-white bodies. Fuck that noise, he warned himself. He let himself be led through the back room of the store to a dirt patio, where a couple of detached rooms were suspiciously hidden. She showed him into the first, which had an iron-spring cot and a comfortable cotton mattress, better than anything he had slept on in El Panóptico except for the week when some troll disease had made him sick enough to get into the infirmary, where the consul had visited him with old Time magazines he never read. All news was bad news.

When the woman left, he lay on the cot on his side and opened the bottle of wine, which he drank very slowly, sucking on it almost, like a nursing baby. Soon the alcohol began to reduce the obnoxious pressure inside his head. He could feel the mellow redness seep into the cracks between his nerves, where all the irritation was, like a rash. He would not go home to Gringolandia until he had sorted through some things and could think in a straight line.

HE MUST HAVE DRIFTED OFF, EVEN THOUGH A LITtle wine was left in the bottle. When they shook him awake roughly, he wanted to hit.

“This is my husband,” the store woman said to him in Aymara. “His name is don Eloy.”

Don Eloy looked down with tremendous disdain at the Stone Cowboy on the cot. He was big for a troll, as wide as he was tall. He looked the image of a decadent Indian on a reservation in the United States, dour and sour and dreaming of eagles. His black eyes were fierce, his ruddy face fiercer.

“What are you going to do tomorrow?” he asked Roger, as though he had a right to know.

“What do you care?” After the initial urge to strike out, he felt halfway okay. Enough wine had filtered between the nerve cracks to prevent chafing. No use resenting a troll.

“You want a job?”

“Doing what?”

“At my lumberyard.”

“But doing what?”


“How much will you pay me?”

“Ten pesos a day.”

“I’ll try it.”

“I’ll pick you up in the morning. Listen, little gringo, you shouldn’t get drunk. My wife tells me you’re a drug addict.”

“I’m not.”

“When we are working, you are going to tell me about life up north.”

That sounded fine. Even on ten pesos he could save money to leave Bolivia. It was a question of discipline. He didn’t have it, but he would find it. Before he fell back to sleep, he imagined the way he’d feel crossing the border, knowing that he would never see an ugly troll face, never have to talk to a troll again in his life.

The work at Eloy’s small-time lumberyard was not too bad. He had done the same sort of thing in dozens of places, dozens of times: lift fetch carry, drop hold hammer, bend push pull. The dust was awful and the hours longer than you would work anywhere in the States; those were the only bad parts.

“How much a day are you going to charge me for the room and my food?” he asked Eloy his first day on the job.

“Don’t worry about it, gringuito,” the big man said, pulling on his long front teeth with one dirty hand.

Roger, formerly the Stone Cowboy, tried to pin him down but did not succeed. And he was too tired to persist. He was weak. Not for years had he worked for so long with his hands and all his body. El Panóptico and the world’s garden house of dope had run down his three-hundredand-seventy-year-old body considerably. The little strength he had left over he used to defend himself from Eloy and his men—scurvy trolls, all of them, who derived a deep, stupid satisfaction from riding him. He was not just the Gringo, he was the Worthless Gringo, who could not keep up by half with the trolls when they were lifting and stacking boards, let alone do anything requiring more skill of body.

Decadence was Eloy’s explanation for Roger’s miserable condition. During a break he explained his theory both to Roger and to his other hired men. Roger was not sure whether he was trying to be sarcastic, but he thought not.

“Alienation,” don Eloy said. “It’s obvious. Capitalist society produces alienated individuals, because the workers are alienated from their work.”

“Bullshit,” Roger said, defensive though he did not have to be.

“Shut up,” Eloy said. “Alienated people take drugs to escape their alienation. That’s a false escape, of course, but they can’t know that, can they?”

They were sitting in the lumberyard on wooden chairs. Don Eloy’s chair had a fabric cushion. The hired men’s chairs did not. Roger had no chair. He sat on the ground and tried to breathe slowly. The exertion had made him weak. It was July, what the trolls called winter: cold and windy and dry. The dust swirled in the yard, coated Roger’s body, got down into his throat so that he coughed.

“Where did you pick up ideas like that?” he asked his new boss. Couldn’t let them get away with more than the minimum of trash. “University of Moscow?”

Baiting him worked. The break was stretched appreciably, and Roger sensed the satisfaction of the other men when Eloy wound up and delivered. The basic idea, from what Roger could discern, was that Bolivia and the trolls were dirt poor because the imperialists up north—the Yankees—were filthy rich. It was that simple. The standard of living and conspicuous consumption that characterized the United States were the consequences of an economic arrangement that made the trolls dependent for crumbs. Nothing new there: Roger had heard the same song sung in El Panóptico when they wanted to get down on him there. Look at the tin, Eloy ranted. Bolivian miners coughing their black lungs out produced cheap tin so that the United States could win the Second World War, and here in the Andes only a few families, oligarchs in cahoots, made any money.

The break lasted for half an hour.

He wanted to get straight with Eloy about the pay arrangement, but that night he was too tired. Looking for discipline, he bought no wine. Eloy’s wife’s food was about the same as prison food, to which he had become accustomed, so he ate and went to sleep.

The second day and the rest of his first week were more of the same. Eloy got puffed and holy talking about the crummy way the gringos had treated the trolls. The other men laughed like first-graders about how weak the drug addict from El Panóptico was, but they didn’t push as hard as they might have, because they appreciated the long breaks they got when Eloy started spouting. At night he drank at most a little wine, no more than half a bottle, and some nights he had none at all. Roger’s body felt like Bolivia after it had been tromped on and raped by a hundred thousand imperialist mineral pirates. But even that exhaustion became the cause for a little self-satisfaction: he would ride it all out.

He had his insurance but wasn’t touching it. Whenever the day was quiet, he felt the pressure in his head, but he had almost become used to that: the pressure was company.

After a week he asked for his pay, and got it. Six days times ten pesos should have been sixty pesos, but don Eloy gave him thirty.

“Thirty pesos for room and board?” Roger protested.

“That’s outrageous.”

“Do you have a better offer?”

They were standing in the little store that fronted the dusty street. Roger was part, now, of the yellow light that had attracted him the first night. Little tremors of weakness ran up and down his legs. Don Eloy’s wife hung her head, so Roger could not tell whether she was ashamed of the way her husband was taking advantage of him.

“This is your idea of a political lesson,” Roger said to Eloy. “That’s what it is, isn’t it? You’re trying to prove something.”

“You have a better offer?”

“I have black lungs.”

“From smoking drugs.”

“I don’t do drugs.”

“Liar,” piped up the wife.

“I’ll get my own place to stay,” he told them both, feeling almost as stubborn as he was tired.

“Go ahead.”

“You’ll pay me ten pesos a day without taking anything out? No more screwing me?”

“Ten pesos.”


“Where are you going to sleep? It’s cold.”

“That’s my problem, not yours.”

THE NEXT DAY WAS SUNDAY, A DAY MORE OR LESS OF rest. Eloy closed his lumberyard and sat in a contraband chaise longue in his wife’s corner store, drinking beer slowly and growing predictably sullen. The problem, evidently, was the lack of an adequate object for his anger, for which frustration Roger almost pitied him. But he was glad to get away from the big man’s domestic sulk. He went walking.

On earlier walks he had seen the blue tents, and that was what gave him his idea. Out-of-work miners had come to El Alto looking for relief or a job, and those who found neither would sometimes shelter their families in tents of blue opaque plastic that they set up in the empty fields that could still be found in El Alto. No rent, no room deduction, no one taking unfair advantage. They carried their water in jugs from a tap somewhere and hunkered down into a refugee’s life.

The Altiplano wind was blowing hard, stirring dust devils all across the shabby brown city. The day was still young. The sun was flat in the east and the shadows were cold, making Roger think of mornings in El Panóptico, a memory like death itself. He walked with his hands in his pockets, head down, until he saw one of the blue tents, in front of which a troll picked something from his wife’s long black hair. She leaned back peaceably in the man’s lap as he poked, while around them a handful of midget trolls lolled like unimaginative slaves. A quality of domestic intimacy about them impressed Roger powerfully. So he asked them for help.

When they understood that he was not making fun of them and that he had no intention of taking over the land on which they had squatted, they helped him locate some plastic and build his tent, smaller than theirs but big enough for a single man to live in. At the nearby Sunday market they helped him buy two blankets, a tin pot, and a plastic jug for water, all at reasonable prices. He spent the day with them, feeling as if he had stumbled upon the family of some uncle whom he had not expected to like.

When the sun went down, early, he crawled into the new tent, almost at peace but feeling maudlin and alone. For a long time he lay on his back and listened to the wind bang through El Alto, the City of the Future. It was not much colder than the room at Eloy’s, but it was damn cold. Though he was tired, he could not sleep. The desolation of this place wanted to overwhelm him.

For the first time since he could remember, he began to plan, gingerly—the way a person might exercise after a broken leg had healed. He would not walk away from don Eloy’s exploitation yard, because his body, inside which his mind still stalked nervously, had begun to crave work. Just as important, next week he would have the entire sixty pesos, and he thought he could save more than he would spend. He would work a few more weeks, buy some dollars, and get out of Bolivia. In Peru he would do the same, getting stronger and more disciplined. He would go north, working his way and getting younger. The trip would take maybe three months, with luck, but once over the border into Gringolandia, he would buy a hamburger and a milkshake, and then hitchhike home to Flint, where his high school friend Danny was probably still working as a foreman in one of the car plants. Danny would wangle Roger a job, and Roger would grow up to be President of the United States of America of the North. His first official act would be to bomb Bolivia off the fucking continent, starting with El fucking Alto.

That night, when he eventually got tired, he had reached a weird equilibrium that balanced the wind outside with the windy pressure inside his head. Danny, he realized, would never believe this, nor could the story be told. The desolation wanted to get at him, get him good, but he was learning stubbornness. In a way he was glad it was too cold to get out of the tent and go find a bottle of wine somewhere. Thus one dollar saved.

Eloy and his men sucked the marrow from the big bone of pleasure when they learned that Roger was living in a blue-plastic tent in an empty field. His fortune was their revenge for all the miners who had died from black lung, for the hundreds of years of eating small potatoes, for their condition of perpetual trollhood. At the end of the second week, however, Roger felt as if he had beaten them all. Don Eloy handed over sixty Bolivian pesos—no discount, no comment. Roger sewed an extra sock to the inside of his jeans, at the waist, into which pocket he tucked the money. He was a miser, and no bottle of bad wine tempted him. He went to sleep early, stronger and younger than he had been for years.

At the end of the third week he asked for a raise. In response he received a boring, gritty lecture from his employer about economic dependence, about the inhuman face of imperialism, about the revealing analogy between workers against capitalists and poor countries against rich countries. When don Eloy offered him one peso a week extra, he accepted the offer and felt that he had won a tactical victory.

BY SEPTEMBER THE WEATHER HAD WARMED, AT LEAST during the day, and the nights were bearable even on the Altiplano. The change of season made Roger restless, and he decided he would work another week and then take the bus to Peru.

“I’m leaving next Sunday,”he said to Eloy.

“Where to?”

“The United States.”


“I just thought I ought to tell you.”

“You’re going to start taking drugs again, I bet.”

“You bet wrong.”

“You’re an insolent bastard.”

Roger cursed him in nicely accented Aymara, and the troll lumberman bellowed with pleasure.

That night in his tent Roger thought seriously for the first time about destroying his insurance: two hits of windowpane acid that a disconsolate gringo had passed to him in El Panóptico, as a way of vicariously celebrating Roger’s release. Too soon. He felt more superstitious than vulnerable, but he could not yet let them go.

Thinking made him restless, almost nervous. He crawled out of his tent to take a walk, and found the city in the grip of a power failure. Rio Seco and all of El Alto were as dark and desolate as his worst mood. Overhead the southern stars were splendid, Orion lying on his side like a drunken veteran. For some reason the sight of the stars robbed Roger of his confidence. For a long minute he considered doing the acid, after which he felt unreasonably tired. Rather than walk, he crawled back inside the blueplastic cocoon and slept. The pressure and the presence in his head had diminished as he grew back into health, and that almost disappointed him. He felt more abandoned than ever, as if some important quiet self inside were sitting with his legs crossed and his hands folded, waiting for an answer, and all he got back was the silence, on the far side of which was nothing. Give me back my heart, he heard rather petulantly.

ALTHOUGH THEY WERE CAREFUL NOT TO SPEAK A word, Roger knew that Eloy’s men were the ones who broke into his tent and took the money. He remembered nothing unmistakably identifiable about any of them. Not a human smell, or an individual cough. They fell on top of him and clamped a hand over his mouth, and for a moment he thought that they were going to rape him. Impatient hands tore down his jeans, but what they grabbed was the small wad of his money, which he had changed into dollars the week before. Before they left, Roger wondered how they could know so surely where to find his money. In another life he would have cried.

Instead, he went after Eloy, whom he found stumbling drunk in a broken-shouldered restaurant that smelled of garlic. A single woman from one of the Altiplano towns worked there in the evenings. For no reason that anyone who knew Eloy found convincing, she liked to flirt with the married lumberman, even though she had no expectation of any kind of gain from the transaction.

“I want my money,” Roger told him, wondering whether the man could hear or understand him through the alcoholic vapor.

“Fuck you, little gringo.”

“I want my money.”

But Eloy was not capable of holding up even that much conversation. Maybe to impress the woman on duty, whose one gold tooth shone strangely in the lamplight, he dove at Roger and hugged him like a lover. The force of the embrace knocked Roger down, and don Eloy fell on top of him. Sitting on his chest as if sober, he began to slap Roger in the face, while cheerful Altiplano pipe music bubbled in the background. Left side, right. Left side, right. No punches, just hard slaps. Roger felt the blood begin to run somewhere. Concentrating intensely, as if doing some Oriental meditation exercise, he drew his strength to a single point in his arms and pushed the heavy troll off. Don Eloy rolled along the floor like a barrel with arms, the waitress screamed theatrically, and Roger left running.

His mind had become his body again, after a long period of improvement and strength and great discipline at saving money. Walking after he became winded, Roger began to age again, and the speed at which he regressed terrified him. At the same time, the pressure came back into his head, stronger than it had been before. Why are you doing this to me? he asked, conscious of aiming the question precisely, an arrow into a void.

No answer, none expected.

The lights had come back on in the city, what few were there. The yellow domesticity seeping through cracks and over transoms both attracted and repelled him. He got lost. He had no reason to go back to his tent, and his brain worked better with his legs moving. Before he found a place out of the wind to lie down in, he had his plan.

He woke at about nine o’clock, judging by the feel of the morning around him. Someone gave him water to wash his face with, stinging cold and slightly oily. Then he went directly to don Eloy’s, knowing that what he needed might take several visits. But he was lucky. Eloy’s wife was tending her little soda-pop-and-cracker business alone, dozing in her chair. She smiled enigmatically at him as he came in, as though she wanted to tell him a joke.

“I want to see the old man,” he said abruptly.

“He’s asleep out back. You treated him bad last night, Roger, and his body is hurting him.”

“Go get him.”

She shook her head.

“Go get him or I’ll go get the police.”

She clucked skeptically. “Don Eloy knows all the police.”

“Not the police in the American Embassy.” A stupid enough bluff, but it worked. She scuttled.

In the drawer below the cash drawer below the counter he found and took a pistol. He remembered to check to see that it was loaded, although he knew it would be. Eloy would not protect his place with an empty gun. He closed the door to the street, and, more quickly than he’d expected, Eloy came, scratching his fur like a bear roused in winter and ready to curse. As he came into the room, Roger pointed.

“I want my money.”

“What money?”

A rage that was deep and satisfying and happy came over Roger. He would have been delighted to shoot the bear in the chest, and don Eloy must have been able to see that.

“What money?” he asked again, but that was only a stall.

“Don’t you think I’ll shoot you? What do I lose? Without the money I’m as good as dead here.”

“It’s out back, in a box I have.”

“Let’s go. I may decide to take back my money and shoot you anyway, though. Just warning you. That’s politics, you know. An example of your goddamn imperialism at work.”

Just in time he remembered not to let the woman escape. He heard moving-around noise as they walked out behind the little house to the bedrooms, and he took her in tow easily. She went with him readily, falling in step behind her husband as if she were amused.

In one of the little rooms they found a small green metal box fastened securely with an oversized padlock. Roger could feel the reluctance of his former employer to unlock the box, could feel the effort that almost but not quite balanced the odds of getting shot against the intense disagreeableness of giving up the money. The strength of that sensation in the man, whom he hated more than Bolivia, was in itself worth experiencing, worth a trip to the land of the trolls.

“One hundred and forty-five dollars,” Eloy said, when he had finally opened the box. He carefully handed Roger the same small wad that had been taken from him the night before.

“What else is in there?”

“The rest is mine.”

“Not anymore. Yankee imperialism in action. See it? Give me the rest.”

Don Eloy shook his head ponderously several times.

“I can shoot you and take the money, or I can just take the money. How come you think I wouldn’t shoot you, old man? By the time anybody pays any attention, I’m gone.” He insulted the man in Aymara, but the words made no evident impression on him. The wife had shrunk into herself, her shoulders hunched, her head bent way low.

With a truly wrenching effort that might at another time have gentled any stone cowboy in the world, don Eloy passed him the money, all in dollars. No way to count then, but maybe several hundred dollars more. Roger put the money into the front pocket of his jeans and began to back away, the pistol still pointing.

“I’ll mail you the gun,” he said.

“Please,” don Eloy pleaded.

Roger wanted badly to say something that cut hard, something his enemy would be able to chew on as he worked in his lumberyard for the next twenty years, but nothing came. “Troll,” he said softly in English, and he was gone. Running. The strength in his legs and lungs made him feel clean as he went, clean and getting younger.

HE HAD A FEW BAD PERIODS ON THE WAY TO THE Peruvian border, doubled up with worry. If don Eloy really knew the police, they might be looking for him. But like everything else in Trollandia, controls were lax, and the Altiplano bus he was riding crossed over at the Lata-Lio checkpoint into a country that was one step north toward home.

Leaving Lata, Bolivia, to enter Lio, Peru, all passengers were required to step down from the bus and file in line past uniformed customs officers, who quizzed them and looked at passports. At the end of the line Roger turned back toward the adobe shed in Lata, in front of which stood a little cluster of Bolivian soldiers in green uniforms, gray ponchos, shiny black boots. He picked up a sunwarmed, sharp-edged rock, hefted it, and felt the itch in his palm that was the urge to throw. But he had learned discipline, and he let the rock fall back onto the ground. He maintained the last place in line.

Because of the tremendous pressure inside his head, he was scarcely aware of filing back onto the bus and moving again, of being safe. He had a window seat, and he had discipline, an acquired skill. He was conscious, however, of taking the dirty square of paper to which the acid was fixed, tearing it in two, and letting the two halves flutter out the window. He felt both clean and empty. After the satisfaction of beating don Eloy, and with hard-earned money in his pocket, the demand returned: Give me back my heart. The pressure in his head, luckily, was still there. But he heard no answer. Planning a little ahead, he calculated how soon he would get to Lima, how much that would cost. Give me back, he heard repeated with some insistence, my heart. He settled back and rode.