The Pain Machain by Yuriy Tarnawsky
I was for some reason in Puerto Vallarta—I can’t remember why—and found myself at a garden party in one of the large hotel or condo complexes which stud the shoreline west of the town proper. I used to vacation in Puerto Vallarta with my family when I was married but this time it wasn’t a vacation, I’m sure of that. It wasn’t a business trip either because I’m not involved in any business and never have been, so I must have been there for some other purpose but I just can’t remember what. I know though it wasn’t a dream.
I was talking to an Indian fellow—Asian Indian and not Mexican—whose name, he told me, was Raj. He was tall, like some Indians are, and beefy—that is big but not fat and not muscular either—with a shiny olive-colored skin that seemed covered with oil—olive oil. He must have been in his mid-forties for his hair was thin on top, a little wavy, clinging in an attractive way to his well-formed skull that shone under it. His eyes were large and as he talked he would open them very wide and roll them so that they looked like they were about to pop out of their sockets from great pain, as if he were being tortured. He wore, I think, dark pants and a loose white or beige Indian shirt without a collar, open all the way down, exposing his hairy chest.
We were having drinks—I, a gin and tonic or something similar with tequila in it—and stood with glasses in our hands, the clinking of the ice in them providing an almost inappropriately delicate, archaic background music to our conversation. There were lots of people around, probably a couple of hundred, many of them Indian as my companion, standing under palm trees, among bushes and flower beds, swimming pools like giant liquid precious or semiprecious stones shimmering between and behind them. I think now it must have been a promotion party for a condo outfit, so maybe I flew in for it and they paid my way. They must have, for I wouldn’t have flown on my own for something like that, although this is almost as unlikely as my paying for the trip. I just don’t remember. I know though I don’t own a condo in Puerto Vallarta or anyplace else and as far as I remember never have.
We talked as we sipped our drinks and then a big square white van came pushing its way past us, so close I had to step aside to make room for it. I glanced at it annoyed and saw that it had a little square, or rather rectangular, window, like those in an airplane but with straight edges, in its side, with something elongated and white showing through it. At that instant I read the lettering that like a rainbow curved over the window, saying “THE PAIN MACHAIN”. Under the window was printed a street address, then on another line “Puerto Vallarta”, and at the very bottom a telephone number. I immediately thought it was a bakery van—“pain” is “bread” in French—that is a van which was a bakery and which baked bread on premises; people would hire it for parties so as to have freshly-baked bread for their guests. It made sense that in a place like Puerto Vallarta, which has so many hotels, there would be an outfit like that. So, instinctively, I thought the white object in the window was an unbaked loaf of bread. But as I looked at it I saw it was the face of a man staring blankly outside. He looked incredibly sad—dejected—as if there wasn’t an atom of a possibility of joy in his life as far as he could see it stretch before him and he had nothing to look forward to. The man had black hair but a fair complexion—he seemed European rather than Mexican—and I concluded it was the baker, bored with his job, staring absentmindedly ahead, for the moment not having anything to do. His looking so pale, I further explained to myself, was probably due to his having some flour on his face from working with the dough which he must have prepared before starting on the trip.
The van moved on, made a slight turn to the left, and headed toward a little hillock up ahead, among palm trees. People made room for it as it approached them, interrupting their conversations, stepping aside before returning to their original spots like water closing after a boat that had passed through it. Satisfied with my explanation I turned back to my companion and we resumed our conversation.
I don’t know how long we had talked—a quarter of an hour or perhaps less, ten minutes—when I became aware of a sound which I realized had been there for a while—five minutes at least—being broadcast over a loudspeaker. It was that of a human voice, a man’s, it sounded, a ululation reminiscent of Eastern singing—Arabic or Indian—but harsher, with passages in it more like moans or screams of pain than music. I assumed it was Eastern music, broadcast for the benefit of the guests, primarily Indians, of whom there were so many in the crowd. The pain the music brought to my mind really bothered me, so I tried to disregard it as we talked, but it was getting harder and harder to do as time went on. The singing sounded more and more like sheer screams of pain and I just couldn’t understand how such stuff could be played at a garden party. I could no longer hear the clinking of ice in our glasses. Finally anger totally took possession of me and, red in the face, I interrupted my companion—it was he who did most of the talking, I being largely a passive listener—practically shouting: “What the hell kind of music is it? Why are they playing it? It’s driving me crazy!”
“Oh, but it’s not music,” the man answered, smiling politely in that openly insincere way people from his country have, showing no sign of displeasure at having been interrupted, as if glad to abandon the previous subject for the new one, his sing-song accent bearing the typical signs of retroflexion, “It’s screams of pain.”
“Screams of pain?” I burst out incredulous, now even angrier because of not being able to make any sense out of his explanation. “What do you mean?”
“Well,” the man said, smiling more broadly, this time with obvious sincerity, apparently pleased to have an opportunity to elaborate further on the subject. “You see that van over there that drove past us?” He pointed toward the hillock where the van stood. “There is a man inside it who is being tortured and his screams are piped out through the loudspeaker.”
He went on to explain that there was a company—were companies—in Puerto Vallarta, and throughout Mexico as well as the rest of the world, which, for a fee, would come to a place, public or private, and would provide live screams of pain produced by employees tortured inside a van for the purpose of entertainment. These were people who voluntarily hired themselves out for the job. Typically, he observed, they didn’t get much for their services—not much more than the minimum wage.
I listened in amazement to the man talk, as he elaborated on the details of this gruesome industry. Everything he said I actually already knew. It had been hidden inside me and his words were merely making it come out. Things that had bothered me for as long as I could remember, issues relating to life, the world, one by one became clear, resolved. Unrelated things suddenly connected, became part of each other. New issues I never realized existed suddenly popped up and were immediately explained as part of the process. Everything became so simple, fitted together, made sense. I was almost saying to myself constantly “Ah, no wonder!” I understood myself, life, people, saw why things were the way they were in the past and how they would be in the future. It was clear this was the most important turning point in my life—the only turning point—and that from this moment on it would be completely different—more peaceful if not happier—than it had been until then.
“Come, let’s have a look,” the man said cheerfully, having apparently gotten all the information he felt was vital out to me and I obediently, but completely willingly, turned and followed him as he started walking toward the van.
There were two or three people, all men, standing by the van, looking at the window. We stopped beside them and looked ourselves. As I had been assuming it was the man whose face I had seen before that was being tortured. He must have been strapped down to the chair he sat in for his body shook so violently it would have flown off if this weren’t true. I said it was the man whose face I had seen in the window who was being tortured. I gathered this from the color of the hair and the complexion of the man whose face I saw now for his features were totally indistinguishable. His head shook so violently they were just a blur, like objects on a table which is vibrating so strongly they are moving by themselves all over the place, threatening to fall off. The man’s mouth was open, twisted in an unnatural fashion like a mask in classical Greek tragedy. A bright red tongue, surprisingly small and sharp, stuck out of it like a triangular flame of the fire burning inside him. His eyes protruded what seemed like a couple of inches out of their sockets, turning this way and that, so that they looked like those of a crustacean—a lobster. Most of them were white—the eyeballs—but now it was clear that the irises were blue; there was no question the man was European. And all of this took place on the background of his screams which in an endless stream of sounds, indeed like an Eastern song that seems to have no end, continued coming out of a battery of four loudspeakers, aimed in the four directions, sitting on the roof of the van. I had not noticed them before.
I don’t know how the man was being tortured but presumably electric current being applied to his body was one of the methods, although other techniques were probably also being also used, such as his body being shaken violently and his limbs being twisted.
We all stood with our faces turned toward the window, watching what was going on inside.
Suddenly the pitch of the wailing went up and the pauses between the sounds—they were a fraction of a second to start with—got shorter. It looked as though the torture was increased in intensity. This was corroborated by the fact the man’s face got distorted even more and shook with higher frequency. It seemed it was about to take off like a rocket flying into outer space. Then a pair of hands, white and delicately—beautifully—shaped, obviously a woman’s, appeared from behind the man’s head and placed a veil made of sheer white material on his head. This was clearly aimed at hiding the man’s face from the viewers because it was going to look too ugly. But the head shook so strongly that the veil began to slide off as soon as it was laid down. The hands then readjusted it and held it in place by tightening themselves around the man’s neck. At first they just held it in place but after a few seconds they tightened around the neck, strangling it and digging their fingernails into it. This was clearly done in order to inflict more pain on the man. When this happened the sound being broadcast didn’t change appreciably, if at all, however. Obviously the added pain inflicted on the man was insignificant compared to what he was subjected to already.
The woman squeezed the man’s neck for a while—about half a minute—but then apparently felt this would not do—she couldn’t stay in this position all the time, most probably because she had other duties to attend to, such as for instance operating the machinery that tortured the man.
While keeping her left hand on the man’s neck, holding the veil down, she reached with her right one toward the window and pulled across it a curtain made from the same kind of material as the veil, hiding the man’s face from our eyes.
It was clear the visual part of the show was over although the wailing went on. The men—there were three of them, I remember now—turned to each other and exchanged some words, obviously commenting on what they had seen. Then they turned around and started walking down the slope to join the crowd below. The Indian man and I did the same.
Under the palm trees and between the bushes and flower beds people stood in groups, talking busily to each other, laughing, gesticulating, sipping drinks from glasses in their hands. Swimming pools between and behind them shimmered like liquid precious or semiprecious stones. Waiters in white jackets and black pants moved discretely in the crowd offering the guests finger food held on trays. Beyond the palm trees and the silhouettes of the buildings along the shore, as if behind barbed wire, loomed a white strip of emptiness—the sea and the sky.
Tarnawsky is a bilingual American/Ukrainian writer, born in Ukraine but raised in the West.