Thursday, November 03, 2005

Near-Incident in the Village

"Hand-made," the guy told me. That was his promise, so I bought the friggin' blanket. He pockets my money, and I walk away, admiring my purchase — one of those bright, multi-colored woolen blankets they (supposedly) hand-make up here in the Andes. And then I see the tag:


Son of a BITCH!

— but I should start at the beginning. The Master Trainer gave us yesterday afternoon off. Pipers and Fighters both let out early. Most everyone hit the rack for a power-nap before supper — this week's sessions have been excruciating — but PePe has some family in the nearby village, and he proposed that we go down there. He'd show me some of the local culture, and we'd have a home-cooked meal at his aunt's house. We're all getting kind of tired of the food at the Redoubt Cafeteria.

Sounded good to me, so we hiked a good 90 minutes down from the Secret Mountain Redoubt into town. It was Market Day, and merchants from this village and others nearby had assembled on the main street, set up counters, were peddling their wares. One of the guys was selling those brightly-colored alpaca wool blankets.

It occurred to me that I might buy one of these and mail it to President Arroyo. I should pause for a moment and say, up front, that I'm not normally one to kiss and tell — that's not who I am — but in this case, it's important to the story, so I'll make an exception. As you know, Gloria flew me out to her presidential palace last year for a night of unfettered passion. What you don't know is we did it all over her house.

At one point we wound up on the couch in her study. She had a nice imported alpaca blanket from Peru in there, kind of thrown over the back of it. The colors were a great match on the ultrasuede. In the heat of the moment, it didn't occur to either of us to put that blanket away, and it somehow got caught under us. By the time we came up for air, that blanket was shredded. I mean, it was messed up. Gloria later mailed it to me as a souvenir.

Anyway, I thought it might be nice to send her a replacement blanket, just to let her know that I still think of her now and then. I had a good one picked out. To my eye it looked like a good match for her couch. I haggled a bit with the merchant, just to let him know that even though I'm American, I can still drive a hard bargain.

"Hand-made," he kept saying, over and over. Yes, yes. Hand-made. We settled on a price and closed the deal.

Then I saw that tag: MADE IN THE PHILIPPINES, and I went storming back to the counter to demand a refund.

"You said these were hand-made," I complained.

"Yes, yes. Hand-made in the Philippines."

"Yes, well, here's the thing — I plan to send this blanket to the Philippines. It's sort of silly, isn't it, for me to buy a Peruvian blanket that was made in the Philippines and then send it back to the Philippines?"

The merchant nodded at me, understanding. He reached out and took the blanket from under my arm. Good, I thought. He's going to be reasonable. He dug around in his pockets for what I thought was my money. Instead, he pulled out a pair of folding scissors. With these he cut the tag off the blanket, which he then handed right back to me.

"Hand-made in Peru," he said, triumphantly.

"No —" I shook my head. "No. That's not going to work."

"Well, no refunds. Sorry."

At this point I felt the blood rush to my head. The world seemed to move in slow motion, and voices from nowhere began to shout provocative words at me. In short, I began to experience all the familiar signs that I was going to have an Incident. I slammed a fist down on the merchant's counter, splintering the wood.

"PEPE!" I shouted.

My Piper appeared beside me. He had been charming some of the local milkmaids with an improvisation of "Guantanamera." "What is it?" he asked.

"Pipe me some fightin' music, PePe. This gentleman here is asking for an ass-kicking."

PePe brought his hand to my shoulder. "I don't think that's a good idea, Phutatorius."

"WHAT?" I cried, taking another angry hack at the charlatan blanket-merchant's wooden table. This one left a deep dent. "Have you forgot your blood-oath already?"

PePe stiffened. "We are not in danger, Phutatorius. The blood-oath does not trigger under these conditions. Stop for a moment and think. This is an unwise course of action."

The concentration of blood flushed out of my head, swirling away the angry voices with it. The world resumed turning at its normal rate. I took a deep breath. "PePe, you're right. There are other people here. Good people I might offend, if I give this snake-oil salesman the drubbing he deserves. It's not worth it."

I looked up at the astonished merchant, who began stammering. "You're — you're one of the Elite Incan D-dance-Fighters we've been he-hearing about?"

I nodded.

He reached into his pocket. "Here. Take your money. T-t-t-take it. Take all of it!"

"No," I said, backtracking. "I'm fine. I was upset. I let my emotions get the better of me, and I apologize. A deal is a deal. I'll keep the blanket."

The merchant accepted my extended hand, and we shook on it. Then I took my leave of him, with PePe beside me. We weren't thirty yards clear of the market when something cracked the back of my head, just on the occipital bone. I reached a hand back, instinctively, to the point of impact. Something gooey. I looked at my fingers. Yolk — and small bits of shell.

I turned around to see who threw the egg. And there she was: the Most Beautiful Girl I'd Ever Seen in Peru ("MBGIESP"). She had long, thick black hair, almond-shaped eyes of the deepest, penetrating green. She had on a woolen poncho and a long, woven skirt, and she was holding the pose on her follow-through and cursing me out:


I froze in my tracks. Wait — wait a minute, I wanted to plead my case. There wasn't even an Incident. PePe stopped me, and I did the right thing. I'M NOT A YANQUI CULO. I'm a good person. But no words came out. And the MBGIESP continued to glare at me.

"Come on," PePe said, taking my arm, turning me back round. "My aunt has dinner ready."

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