As a boy, Spenser Tillyard treasured an oblong art deco coaster he had purloined from the restaurant of the Hotel Lara in Barquisimeto, Venezuela. He remembered little about the city itself, except as an overnight stop in Estado Lara on the flat hot plain that led to the Andean foothills and a vertiginous trip up the mountains to Merida on its famous plateau. He loved the coaster, shaped like an oversized playing card, for its power of evocation: hot, strong colours, a burning sun, and a cactus casting a long shadow over an empty desert. He would spend hours studying it. The scene conjured up Arizona with a Spanish accent: heat, solitude, and an inscrutable mystery that hinted of danger, vultures, and a pitiless silence far removed from the cool green pines of his adoptive land.
Spenser had lost the coaster years before he met his wife Sara at university, but as she was similarly imaginative, she readily agreed to his suggestion of a sentimental trip to South America twenty years after his family had regretfully left it. The couple arrived in Barquisimeto on a hot Friday afternoon, without having made an advance reservation, Micawberishly expecting something to turn up, perhaps a room in the Hotel Lara once again, Spenser excitedly pointing out the landmark obelisk commemorating the founding of the city as they approached it under a deep blue desert sky.
They never found the Hotel Lara, of course. Perhaps it no longer existed. To Spenser’s consternation, the city was crowded, all the hotels full. It was the start of a summer weekend. Circling the downtown looked increasingly foolish. In desperation, Spenser decided to appeal to the public-spiritedness of the citizenry of Barquisimeto. A long, low whitewashed bar cantina suggested itself as a place to start, and Spen pulled in to park.
It was not an auspicious beginning. The vehicles on the rough unpaved lot, battered pick-ups and aged camionetas, workhorse 4x4s and dusty jeeps, all worked hard for their livings, something the couple’s rented Ford Fairmont, a pansy canary yellow, did not.
The tiles on the floor at the entrance were chipped and broken, the walls stained and worn, and the windowless interior impenetrably gloomy out of the glare of the sun. Spenser approached a softly-lit bar, around which a cabal of burly men was clustered. It was, defiantly, a workingman’s club, and he felt like an intruder. As he cautiously approached the group, incongruously audible from a jukebox over the rattle of a defective air-conditioning unit, Bing Crosby was dreaming of a white Christmas, in English. In his halting Spanish, Spenser threw himself on their mercy. He and his wife were Canadian tourists unable to find a room for the night; could the gentlemen help, he asked politely. One of the men, dark and villainous in a Pancho Villa moustache, appeared to take a sympathetic interest.