When Miguelín was three years old, a demon possessed him, but nobody noticed because the unclean creature didn’t force the little boy to do cruel things, to speak in a deep voice nor to spew forth in some unnatural way. On the contrary, Miguelín became, under the iron rule that blunted his will and his conscience, the friendliest and most quick-witted child the family had ever known, then the most ingenious and dedicated student, then the graduate with the highest marks in the career he had chosen, then the most-caring boyfriend, the most-faithful and concerned spouse, the best father. In addition, he devoted his free time to helping the poor and to supporting numerous just causes, he was good to his neighbors, was never greedy nor tolerated corruption, attended mass and blessed the holidays…
This exemplary life ended two minutes ago, with a relatively quick death, painless and not bitter because it crowned (at least, from the point of view of his relatives) many years of fullness.
And now the soul of Miguelín, that poor little thing, still that of a child for lack of exercise, emaciated, become almost nothing after so many years of being the property of another, shyly rises, unable to separate itself from the one who had for so long accompanied it and procured it. And the demon was satisfied, but also very nervous, because it knew that from a distance the two looked like one, from such habit and such goodness that illuminated them, but they are two and the Eye that sees all is not always looking the other way, and it wonders (the demon) if everything will have been worthwhile and if it could manage to ascend as high as Miguelín deserves. And it thinks of mystic roses, thinks of white clouds and fresh stars above clear skies, and it thinks of the dark pools of hell, of the flames and the tortures.
And what’s more, it has forgotten why it desired to rise to this height, what maleficent and magnificent plan inspired it, and which would be worse: for it to be discovered, or for it to not be discovered; for it to be cast down with the child and everything, a failure and fallen once more, or for it to spend eternity in the contemplation of the divine, increasingly removed from its nature as a devil? (It too has been bound for a long time, and it is very afraid to imagine being separated from the poor child, this snippet of spirit, this pitiful little thing…)
Translated from the Spanish by Lawrence Schimel
Lawrence Schimel (New York, 1971) writes in both English and Spanish and has published over 100 boooks as author or anthologist, including the poetry collections DELETED NAMES and FAIRY TALES FOR WRITERS, the short story collections THE DRAG QUEEN OF ELFLAND and TWO BOYS IN LOVE, or the children’s books LET’S GO SEE PAPÁ and LITTLE PIRATE GOES TO SCHOOL. He lives in Madrid, Spain where he works as a Spanish->English translator.
We went as far as the car would take us, which wasn’t all the way. To get all the way, you had to walk, and walking wasn’t going to be easy. Not in that terrain. Not when every step was swamped with ash, which seemed to suck and subside and leave your foot not much further on than it was before.
I said to Sue, “Are you sure you can manage, Sue? Are you sure you’ll be all right.”
“Sure I’ll be all right,” she said. “Sure I’m sure.”
But her face looked a little upset, somehow. It looked a little discomposed. Even back in the car she’d had that look, and while it wasn’t getting worse, it wasn’t going away either. It was a look that said, “Whatever my lips may actually tell you, I’m really not sure about this now. My lips are liars – don’t listen to ‘em.”
But I had always listened to Sue’s lips. That’s why I had married her in the first place. If I’d listened to her face – if it’s possible to listen to a face – I wouldn’t have married her. Her face had told me, back in that harsh New England winter five years before, that she was not for marrying. She was too old for it. And I was too young to be considering to marry her. I should be chasing girls my own age, not old women in their sixties, who’d seen better days. But her lips had told me, in that sensual and persuasive way lips can, that marrying her was exactly what I should do. And that was five years ago, and that’s what I had done.
I didn’t regret it. I loved Sue, after all. And Sue said she loved me, or at least her lips did.
We could see it up ahead, the volcano. We could see it rising steadily out of the platinum-coloured land. Here and there one or two little scrubby bushes clung to the ash, but there was so little for them to get their roots into that they made poor bushes indeed. Mesquites can grow quite big, but these were small and withered, as if cowering from what they sensed could come out of that crater, even though nothing had for centuries.
At the base of the incline, I paused to let Sue, who was lagging, catch up. She had that look still, and now, for the first time, I sensed that something undercut it, something not contrary but not supplementary either – I think it was panic.
“Are you all right, Sue?” I said. “You look a bit pale.”
“Of course I’m all right. I’m always pale. It’s my complexion. It’s everyone’s complexion who comes from Maine, dumb-ass.”
She had a way with words for an older lady, Sue did.
I noticed that she wasn’t breathing hard, which surprised me, because the effort of walking on ash was making my own breath come a little harder, just to catch up with itself, and I am fit. But I worried about her ankles. They were prone to a little arthritis, Sue’s ankles were. And she insisted on wearing semi-high heels that her old feet distorted as they in turn had been distorted by high heels past, as if they were intent on getting revenge on those high heels. And her ankles swelled up and seemed to be spilling over the heels in what looked to me like an awful painful way, but she rarely complained about them. Only sometimes she would moan and groan a bit when we got back from someplace and she’d sit there rubbing her feet as if they were painful, without actually saying so. On the few occasions I had asked her, though, she’d admitted to it readily enough. “My ankles give me pain,” she’d flatly state.
“Are your ankles ok, Sue?” I asked her, as she came up level with me and gazed at the slope ahead.
“My ankles are fine,” she said, and smiled at me from behind that ambiguous mask she was wearing.
“Allrighty then,” I said and started up the slope.
“Aren’t you gonna help an old lady a little bit?” she said suddenly, from behind me.
I turned back around, a bit stunned. I had never heard Sue ask for help, and if ever I’d offered it, she had pridefully declined. In fact, she had sometimes gotten angry with me for asking, which is why I hadn’t done it now.
“Of course, sweetie,” I said, rushing back to take her arm. “Why didn’t you say before?”
“Well I didn’t need it before,” she said, “but now I need it, so I’m asking.”
“Take it slow,” I said, guiding her up the slope. Her face was measurably less tense already. I could see that it was a relief to her to have the support, and this in turn made me feel relieved.
“I wish you’d ask more often, Sue,” I said. “You really shouldn’t struggle on needlessly just for the sake of—” I broke off, wanting to say “pride” but thought I might offend Sue by calling it that.
She seemed to know that I had bitten my tongue though, and an uneasy silence came between us, despite our close proximity. The silence came and wedged itself there, between our two faces, like a third thick face that neither of us had met before. We didn’t like it, but it was hard to dismiss. The silence, you see, was all around, and we both sensed, I’m sure, that if we managed to shake it off for a second, it would just rush in again a moment later. We went on climbing.
The sky above us was a thick white, and seemed very low, but there was also a great humidity in the air. My t-shirt was damp, and I could see that Sue’s blouse was also sticking to her, especially where my hand grasped her arm.
“It’s awful funny weather,” said Sue, as we got nearer the top. I think she was staving off anxiety about what we would find when we got there, so I just uttered a generic, reassuring reply. It wasn’t a big climb really, and there was a sense that there oughtn’t to be anything spectacular at the top of it, but somehow you sensed there would be regardless, and this discrepancy made you feel nervous.
And it turned out, there was. At the top of the climb we stood there and looked down, clapping eyes on the crater. It was much, much deeper than the climb had been tall, burying right down into the earth.
“My goodness,” said Sue breathlessly, as if her lungs had finally realised that they ought to be puffed. “I never thought it would be as deep as all that.”
“Neither did I, Sue,” I said, scratching under my t-shirt at the back, where the sweat had made it itchy. “I guess it’s because the ash trailed out so far, effectively smoothing out the slope into a gentle gradient.”
And it was true that we had driven through the volcano’s skirt of ash for 10 miles before we’d had to abandon the car.
“Oh right,” said Sue, “I guess you’re right.”
“Wow,” I said, handing Sue the water bottle.
She took it and swigged greedily. I heard the water gulping down her throat and saw her hefty bosom heaving with the effort of taking it all in at once.
“Oh sorry,” said, remembering herself half way and handing the bottle back to me.
“No, no, keep going,” I said. “I’m not thirsty now, Sue.”
She took the bottle back again, but out of politeness didn’t drink any more. I knew she wouldn’t do, though she probably needed it.
Far away in the mountains, dark clouds had gathered, and I could see rain sheeting down onto them ominously.
“I hope we don’t get that here,” I said to Sue. “I don’t fancy driving back through this ash if it turns to mud.”
“Oh I don’t think we will,” Sue said reassuringly. But she was probably right – it looked to be confined to the higher reaches of the mountains.
I thought I could see something glinting at one point, and guessed it might be either a car headlight turned on in the rain or something catching some sunlight somewhere, though the two ideas seemed to cancel each other out. Apart from that though, there was nothing. Even the old hotel we had passed on the way in was nowhere to be seen. The place had looked deserted, though there was a Vacancies sign, in English, in the window. If anyone was living there, keeping the place running, they’d have had a running battle with the ash, which was banked against the walls as if intent on smothering what amounted to the only human presence in its area of influence. There had even been ash in the mailbox, whose little tin door had vanished.
“Strange that we can’t see that hotel,” Sue said, seeming to read my thoughts.
“Probably it’s been covered over by the ash,” I laughed, “buried alive.”
“Ooh, don’t say that!” said Sue, in a tone that suggested she really relished the thought.
“Just saying”“ I said.
“Hey look at me,” said Sue, waving her hands about suddenly, while keeping her head still, as if a butterfly had landed on her and she didn’t want to spook it off.
“What?” I said.
“Look, my hair.”
And it was true. Sue’s hair was standing up on end – long, grey, wispy strands of it were being tugged upwards by some invisible force, as if God was trying to teleport her up to heaven but she was too strong to go. It spooked me at first, to see Sue like that. And I didn’t like the way she was standing so stiffly either: the whole tableaux as presented to my eyes shocked me.
“Why isn’t it happening to me?” I said, feeling my own hair and feeling secretly relieved that it wasn’t.
“It obviously doesn’t like you, hon,” said Sue, still holding her arms out and walking over in my direction, as if carrying a stack of plates on her scalp. I wasn’t sure I wanted her near me, and I almost signalled to her to stop right there. But she kept coming, and more and more of her hairs lifted off of her head.
I took a step backwards, forgetting the crater was there, and almost lost my footing. A mini avalanche of ash cascaded downwards and was arrested only when it reached a mesquite growing out of the inner wall.
“Look what you made me do!” I said, “I almost fell into the dang pit!”
“Well look where you’re standing, then,” said Sue, arriving in front of my face and planting a kiss on my affronted lips. The kiss buzzed between us like an entity unto itself, filling the negative space of the earlier silence with a positive charge. A rumble went through the clouds directly above us, but neither of us looked to see from whence it came. We were glued to each other, with our strange kiss.
“Now you’ve got it,” Sue said through her teeth, groping around on my head as if in the dark. And she was right, too: I could feel it.
Mexico: The Exile
The boy squats on his haunches, spits in the dust and picks at the hole in the knee of his filthy jeans, the nail of his index finger blackened and dead. He is skinny like an eight-year-old with the face of a careworn parent, black hair dirt stiff and his toffee-coloured skin streaked with a grey and grimy sweat. He can’t remember the last time he washed but he knows he hasn’t eaten since lunchtime the day before, the stale tamale his father gave him still lodged in his gut. In a month he will be 14 and there is nothing but stealing on his mind.
Buzzards circle overhead and the sun will soon rise enough to warm the man lying face down in the barranca, arms and legs splayed as if he has fallen to earth, possibly thrown from one of the planes that streak the sky, north to south, east to west, white trails like the scars that crisscross the soft flesh of his mother’s forearms. Or maybe he was hurled from heaven like the devil. The gringo certainly doesn’t look like any of the angels the boy has seen in picture books.
Let’s call him Chico: Chico Hernandez. We’ll never know his real name. Chico picks up a stone and tosses it at the gringo from his perch above the gully. It misses, hits a small boulder and ricochets noisily away. The gringo doesn’t move. Chico throws another, clips his shoulder. Nothing. The way he’s lying, his neck looks broken. He is wearing only a thin cambray shirt and the night was cold. He must be dead. Chico has seen dead people in coffins before – his grandparents, his uncle, the four miners who got trapped in the cave-in the year before last. Face up. Cleaned up. Neat and tidy. This one will have his bones picked. No one comes out here except him.
A truck sounds its horn out on the highway to the east, headed north for the border, laden with cheap goods. Chico slides down the side of the barranca and steps lightly towards the man, eyes on his boots: Cuban-heeled, exquisitely tooled, no more than a few weeks old. They will fetch a good price if he can find the nerve to pull them off. He picks up a rock, raises it, and prods the gringo’s leg with the toe of his huarache, shudders, does it again, harder this time. The gringo twitches and Chico shrieks in a way that shames him, drops the rock and scrambles back out of the barranca. A groan like an old car struggling to fire builds in the man. Whatever is lodged in his lungs, phlegm or catarrah or mucus or whatever you want to call it, eventually breaks free. He rolls on his side and spits it out, brown and glistening, opens a crusty eye and recalls the night before and the day that came with it. The drive up from Tampico to Piedras Negras, the copy of the book that the Texan woman with the big tits left behind in the bar lying on the passenger seat, pages flapping in the wind and the Chevy burning oil, his wife Dolores’s parting words ringing in his ears.
– Te odio. Siempre!
– I hate you!
– I’ve always hated you!
– I will always hate you!
Man, she gave him three translations. Her English really had come on. Not that a translation was necessary. He has known love and knows she’s never had any for him. Not what he’d call love. Then again, he has called love a lot of things over the years. The book has reminded him of that and it is rage and remorse and a terrible truth that has driven him up to the border. Who was the Texan woman? She’d flirted with him all evening in the shortest shorts, cut right up into her crotch, sitting there with her legs parted. Big fat husband sending her up to the bar for more drinks, watching her ass swing, watching the way she leaned across the bar as he prepared their cocktails, pushing her tits in his face. Asking him where the little sulky waitress was tonight. His wife? Really? Her night off. Running her tongue over her lips. Where was he from? New York? He sounded more west coast, she said, and he wondered why he’d lied. Saying he was from California wouldn’t give him away. How long had he been down here? Wasn’t Tampico a dump? I hear you sold my hubbie a couple of snakes, a lizard. Make my skin crawl. You must be very brave to handle them. To hunt for them. You’ve got strong hands. Look at him. He likes watching me, you know, with other men…
They could barely walk when he bundled them into a taxi and closed up the bar. The bag was on the table next to where they’d been sitting. He stared for a long time at the photo on the cover, got a bottle of Courvoisier and had a double, followed by another, before he dared to open it to the first page. He read through the night. Sometimes through tears. Sometimes his blood ran cold with a truth he barely recognised. By dawn he’d finished the book and the brandy and his mood was murderous. He ran down the beach and into the sea, fully clothed, but he couldn’t drown himself. He crawled back to the bar. There she was. He stood dripping and swaying before her scornful gaze. He went back to the house and changed, sobered up on black coffee and biker speed. She was flicking through the book on the bar where he’d left it. He snatched if off her.
– Te odio. Siempre!
– You don’t even know who I am!
– I don’t care. I hate you!
– I’ve always hated you!
– I will always hate you!
Not as much as he hated himself when he got to the border and saw the US for the first time in almost 15 years and knew he could never cross, never set foot there again. Never put the pedal to the floor, all the way through New Mexico and Arizona, southern California, up to LA, the Chevy burning oil, seek out that little shit and wring his neck for all the lies he’d written in the book. Lies? That was the thing. He wasn’t sure they were.
He turned the car round while he was still in the queue to cross the frontier, hurled the book out of the window and drove into Piedras Negras, parked downtown, an emptiness in him so complete he felt he might float away on the desert breeze as he stepped out of the car. He started drinking in pulque bars where gringos were far from welcome. Stared too long at hard-faced men. He flashed his money, his contempt brazen, most of all for himself. Here he was, hiding in exile, 40 years old and not a single thing left to look forward to.
Two miners befriended him and took it upon themselves to lead him out to the edge of town with the promise of music and peyote, before beating the shit out of him in an echo of Lowry’s consul. They took the pesos in his pockets but he fought back before they could get his boots off and discover his reserve stash, the credit card and keys to the Chevy down his sock. He ran off into the desert and collapsed, came round too drunk to feel the pain in his ribs from their pointed boots, the punches to his head from their shovel-strong fists, and in the true spirit of self-destruction, bore them no malice. Bewitched by the stars, he wandered off deeper into the scrub, climbed a bluff, Piedras Negras twinkling below, the border with the States just beyond. He stood and swayed and sang through swollen lips. Moonlight Drive – it was a long way to the Pacific and the moon was just a sliver but it was a wonderful, heartfelt rendition; an exquisite lament. He hopped and wobbled and threatened to topple off the edge of the cliff, howled like a coyote, wiggled his bum at the US, rubbed his crotch at Piedras Negras and took on the heroes, Elvis first, whose death still troubled him: All Shook Up, Blue Suede Shoes, Love Me Tender. His voice was a rasp by the time he launched into Sinatra. He croaked out My Way before falling into the barranca and passing out.
He struggles on to his hands and knees, crawls around, lurches to his feet. Chico Hernandez is struck first by the huge moustache, something he admires on a man, his still nothing but peach fuzz. Then by the strange stance the gringo adopts: left foot wrapped behind his bent right knee, head cocked, arms held out, wrists limp, he stares at the ground with his one good eye, the other swollen shut, lips split and his cheeks and forehead a camouflage of dried blood and dust. Chico sniggers. The man’s good eye darts up to meet his.
– Florian? He says.
A golden halo forms round Chico’s filthy carpet of hair and the man’s balancing leg gives and he crumples to the Mexican earth, the pain of the beating from the night before kicking home, along with a terrible thirst. He lies there and fingers his jaw, his ribs, his temple, toys with a wobbly incisor that will somehow cling to his gums until the day he dies. He looks up as the sun rises above the barranca and Chico Hernandez is no longer the beautiful boy Florian the exile once knew but a filthy Mexican kid with discoloured teeth.
– Agua, the exile gasps.
Chico shrugs. The exile pulls off his right boot and takes a wad of notes out of his sock, peels off a big bill and waves it at Chico.
Chico signals for him to follow. The man limps along, the wind whipping up sand devils and tortured reflections. Along a dried riverbed he has a terrifying vision of a dead cop, his baby face melting, deflating, the blood gushing from the back of his head, soaking into the floorboards of a derelict house. He feels a pimp’s blood, still warm, trickling down his chest as he runs from a bar, and he remembers while he is in exile. In hiding.
Chico shudders at the gringo’s pitiful sobs and doesn’t dare look back. They emerge from the desert on to a paved road. Ahead lies Piedras Negras. The odd pick-up rattles by. Two young boys run out from a truck stop: identical twins with red hair and skin the colour of baked clay. They thrust warm tamales at the exile and speak Spanish with an accent unlike any he has ever heard.
– Coca-Cola, he rasps.
Chico pushes them away. He is bigger, older. He takes the man by the sleeve and pulls him along.
– Donde vamos? he protests as they head off down an alley lined with shacks, a stream of foul-smelling liquid running down the middle.
– Por aqui. No problemo. Dos minutos.
– Quien? Morrison points at the two boys who have picked up stones but hesitate to throw them.
– Rusos, Chico says dismissively.
Chico digs up the two words he has always heard said about the boys and their parents who live behind the truck stop.
The redheaded twins of Russian Trotskyites, exiled to this wasteland on the border of the old enemy. He is not alone in being alone. But his loneliness will always be greater.
At a crossroads Morrison senses eyes upon him but the only sign of life is a mustard-coloured dog that slinks away through a hole in a cinderblock wall.
– Aqui, senor, Chico says.
He points at a makeshift shelter across the road, empty soda bottles lined up outside. Inside, a small man with a puffy face numbed by strong medication sits on an old car seat, his body slumped and his legs wasted. Chico helps him to his feet, hands him a stick. The man takes a feeble step forward and thinks better of it.
– Buenos dias, senor. Quiere usted algo?
The exile buys a Coke and an empanada, offers the same to the boy who looks at the man.
– Es mi hijo, my son, the man says as way of explanation when Chico shakes his head.
The Coke is warm. The exile runs his tongue over his tattered lips and marvels at misery’s capacity to follow him around.
– Sienta usted.
He accepts the offer of a plastic crate and sits. Chico’s father hovers over him, waits for him to finish the tamale, the effort to stand etched on his face. The exile wishes he would sit down.
He used to work in the coal mines of Piedras Negras, made good money, Chico’s father explains. A few years back he started to lose the strength in his legs. He’d worked since he was a young boy – hard, physical work, senor. I never tired. But this was different. He rested for a couple of days but his strength wouldn’t come back. He went to the doctor. They told him to rest some more, but how could he? He needed to work. Chico is his eldest son but he also has a younger brother and sister. Little by little, he got weaker and weaker until he could no longer go down the mines, was too feeble even to work his small patch of land, to tend the vegetables. He couldn’t support his wife, satisfy her needs, you understand me, senor. I am ashamed to admit it. She took up with another man, had a baby recently. He sleeps here in the shack, on the hard ground, makes a little money from selling sodas and empanadas, sweets to the kids. There’s something wrong with him, the doctors say, but nothing they can do, not here in Mexico. He needs money for American medicine. He is wasting away. Without Chico, he would be finished. Chico is a good boy. He makes a few dollars from guiding tourists but there aren’t many who stop in Piedras Negras, they keep on driving, north to south. There isn’t much round here to make them stop.
– Y entonces aqui estamos, he says.
And so here we are.
– Gracias a dios, Chico’s father says and collapses back in the car seat.
There is nothing to thank God for, the exile thinks. He has abandoned us, forgotten us. And who can blame him?
Chico’s father tries not to look at the cuts on his face, his swollen eye.
– What do you want? the exile says.
His voice is a rasp. He holds his hands out beseechingly.
– What can I do for you? What do you want from me? What am I to you? What are any of us to each other? Whatever we want to see. It’s all spectacle. We are watching the world, no longer living in it. What we seek is inside us. I no longer have any idea what that is, nor if I would recognise it even if I did know what it was. Do you understand me? I no longer know why I am alive, but somehow I am. Somehow I live on, despite myself.
But Chico and his father don’t understand a word the exile says because he speaks in English. They watch him dig out all the money in his pockets, every single peso and dollar. Every note hidden in his sock. He offers them. But Chico’s father won’t accept it, more money than he can earn in six months, a year, five years, sat in this hovel, a peso here and a peso there, his wife fucking another man and his body wasting away with muscular dystrophy or motor neurone disease or some other perverse joke of biology and God be damned.
– Take it, for fuck’s sake! I’ve got nothing else to give you!
Chico’s father lowers his head but the boy doesn’t hesitate. He holds out his cupped hands and the exile puts the money in them. The boy looks at his father’s bowed head.
But his father is quietly sobbing. Chico stuffs the money in the pocket of his jeans.
– El centro? Donde esta? The exile asks.
– Sigame, senor.
He follows the boy back into Piedras Negras and they wander round until he finds his car.
– Gracias, he says.
The boy stands in the middle of the road and watches him drive off. Even though the exile knows it’s just a trick of the light in the rear view mirror, a hallucination, a vision in his fucked-up mind, a blond halo once again forms above the boy’s head and he thinks of Florian. He hits the brakes and skids to a halt, stares in the mirror. But it is still there, a golden light above the kid’s head. He opens the door, pulls his boots off and places them neatly by the side of the road. He doesn’t look back as he drives off, hands shaking.
An hour south he stops off in a small town with a long name and goes to the bank. His bare feet and battered face provoke alarm but he shows his passport and credit card, elicits their sympathy with a tale of being mugged and soon has them eating out of his hand.
– Un caballero, the teller says to another bank official.
Oh yes, a gentleman.
He buys new boots and jeans, a shirt, leaves his old clothes behind in the changing room and checks into a motel. He showers and tends to his wounds, sleeps until dusk, checks out and continues to Tampico. The cocks are crowing in the dark when he pulls up outside the bar. He stands on the deserted beach and listens to the waves. An oily stench drifts in off the Gulf and the lights of passing ships burn his eyeballs as he searches the eastern sky.
He opens the bar, pours himself a stiff rum and coke and digs out his stash of Mexican gold, rolls a fat one. There’s a photograph of him and Dolores up on the wall behind the bar, taken on their wedding day.
They actually look happy.
Mexico: Five Men at the Border
I. El dompe
In Tijuana there is a neighbourhood called el dompe, or the dump. Once an enormous canyon, it is now completely filled with garbage. The first time I visited, driving through in one of the priest’s vans, I saw a man without any pants fighting with a crow for a piece of garbage. The crow was cawing and pecking angrily at his groping fingers. The withered brown dick flopping between his legs was the same colour as the rancid piece of garbage he was fighting for. I saw this in the two seconds it took for Padre Raúl to drive by, and then they were gone, hidden by the mountains of plastic bags, Styrofoam and toilet bowl seats. If you don’t write it down, I told myself, you’ll forget all about it. It’ll be like it never happened.
II. Padre Pepe
In 2007 I spent a summer in Tijuana, living and working with the Salesian priests. Padre Pepe was my favourite. Then in his mid-fifties, he was into ultra-running—he’d come in second for his age category at the San Diego marathon. At 6:30 every morning, when I went downstairs to prepare the chapel for morning mass, I’d pass by him running laps up and down the stairs, huffing and puffing in his grey sweats. Running on the streets at night was out of the question. “By the canal?” he’d say contemptuously, tapping his bushy white moustache with an index finger. “They’ll steal the shoes right off your feet – I should know!”
After the buenas noches prayers at 10 p.m., all the volunteers and priests would sit down together and eat dinner. Every now and then, after everyone else went to bed, Padre Pepe and I would share a Dos XX cerveza and a pack of Marlboros. He smoked cigarettes left-handed, holding it between his index finger and thumb, like a movie gangster.
We talked about my love life, mostly. I told him about how my ex-boyfriend broke my heart and he tut-tutted severely. “You’ll get over it,” he said briskly, sweeping the ash off the table with the back of his hand. It sounded truer coming from him than it had from anyone else: you’ll get over it. It also felt strange saying the words aloud to him, in such a flat, matter-of-fact way: He broke my heart. As though it was something that happened in a single instance, splitting you quickly down the middle, as opposed to something that tore you apart for months and months. He broke my heart.You’ll get over it.
Lukas was the Salesian centre volunteer. He was Austrian and was volunteering in Mexico for a year instead of doing military service. He had beady green eyes that reminded me of the velociraptors in Jurassic Park. His Spanish was so bad, his Austrian accent so thick, that half the time I couldn’t understand a word he said to me. I had to lie and tell him I was partly deaf, smiling apologetically and pointing constantly at my ear. I was also slightly intimidated by his extensive knowledge of the inner workings of the Salesian centre: where the mops were kept, who to chase away from the oratory because they did heroin, how to tell when a priest was in a bad mood.
One evening he asked me if I had any extra blankets, and if I would follow him upstairs to the men’s quarters, where women weren’t allowed: “I have to show you something.” I followed him reluctantly into the men’s laundry room. He showed me his wool blanket and the shredded remains of what looked like a Virgin Mary pillow, one of the decorative ones that local mothers were always giving us as presents. The Virgin Mary’s face was now in rags, barely discernible unless you already knew to look for her, and his blanket was embedded with shiny beads.
“What,” I said, “did you do?”
“Nothing! I put them in the washing machine together and this is what happened!” His arms spread wide as though asking for a hug,
I looked at him with my best expression of compassionate understanding. “I’ll get the extra sheets,” I said, and turned to leave.
He grabbed my wrist and pushed me against the wall. I was too surprised to do anything much. Because his accent was so impossible to understand, part of me believed that this was a mistake, that I was somehow confused, that I had missed some important information along the way. When his hands reached under my shirt to squeeze my breasts, there was no mistaking any misunderstanding. His hands felt sticky, as though covered in dried glue. Without even knowing what I was doing, I brought my wrist down and karate-chopped him on the arm as hard as I could.
“Ow!” he said, stepping back. We looked at each other. I turned again to leave.
“Wait,” he said. “The blankets?”
I kept walking, but I went upstairs to the women’s quarters and brought him back a stack of crisply folded sheets. You see, I didn’t want to be rude.
Lalo was the foreman who worked at one of the oratories. His smile was enormous and gap-toothed. Every week a new busload of fresh-faced, eager American high school students or church youth groups would pull into the Salesian centre. It was my job to lead them around Tijuana, show them how to mix cement, translate the homily at mass and so on. Lalo was there to help with the technical details.
As the weeks went by, Lalo remained the only constant at the site as the American kids came and went. Sometimes the little Mexican cholo or gangster-wannabes would hang around while we painted. They couldn’t be more than eleven or twelve years old. One of them had the Adidas logo tattooed in the back of his scabby, shaved little head. They would pester the American kids with questions in what little English they knew: “Do you have a penis? Is it big and hairy? Do you have a vagina? Does it get wet?” They flicked paint at us and each other and kicked the shaky scaffolding with a soccer ball. I’d tell them to leave, to be respectful, weren’t they embarrassed to be acting this way in front of the American guests, and they’d make fun of my Spanish until my eyes burned with tears. That’s when Lalo would step in.
“Andale mijo!” He’d scowl at them heavily, shaking his trowel, and only then would they finally run away laughing.
Lalo called me “mija” and “jefa”; daughter and boss. I had dinner at his house a couple of times and met his wife and five kids. He was only twenty-eight, so we weren’t that far apart in age. Eventually, he started asking me for money. “Ten dollars? My electricity and water have been cut off. Please. I will pay you back.” He would touch my elbow as he asked me this.
One day, in front of the teenagers and the church youth group leaders, he put a heavy forearm on my shoulder and looked me in the eye. “Have you thought about what I asked you, mija?” he said wearily.
Pieces of dried cement flaked off his arm onto my shirt. I said something about not being allowed to lend people money, and offered to talk with the priests about raising his salary.
The next week he was gone. Padre Rául had to hire another foreman, someone whose name and face I’ve long since forgotten. I heard later that Lalo had left for el otro lado, the other side. His brother was a coyote, or a paid guide, so hopefully they went together. It made me sad and worried to think of him making the journey by himself, among other things.
I didn’t write much in my journal that week. I probably should have.
V. Aunt Juana, Saint Diego
“You know,” Padre Pepe said, “for a long time I was afraid of becoming a priest. I wanted to die like my father did—loved, surrounded by family, held in my mother’s arms.” He took another sip of beer. I used my current cigarette to light the next one, even though the matches were right on the table in front of me. “But then I was meditating on Christ’s life, and it occurred to me that he also died alone, loved, but in nobody’s arms. He was really very alone, but at the same time powerfully linked to everyone in a different way.”
He paused, and I flicked the ash.
“It made me think, hmm. That could be another way to die.”
That evening I climbed up to the Salesian centre roof. I needed a break from dealing with the American teenagers, from their constant barrage of questions about the cold showers, the blocked toilets, the border wall. “When was it built? What was it made out of? Do you ever see people crossing? Do they climb over it? Jump over, dig under?
Have you ever seen anyone get shot?” Sometimes they made good observations: “Nobody owns a car here. My family owns like three.” Other times not: “Why is everything here so dirty?”
I crouched behind the giant water boiler to smoke yet another cigarette, hidden from view. My ex-boyfriend had been sending me e-mails for a while now, but had recently abruptly stopped. This made me the saddest I had been all summer, and I cried behind the water boiler: first about the e-mails, then about the fact that I was so upset. When the cigarette burned down to my fingertips, I finally wiped my eyes.
The long red border wall was visible from the roof. It was built in the 50’s out of air-landing strips from World War Two. Behind it was the wall with the floodlights and barbed wire; behind that one was the enormous wall of concrete. Buried in the ground were the motion detector sensors, and overhead was the constant chopping sound of helicopters. The city lights of San Diego on the other side looked like pinpricks on a piece of dark construction paper, lit up from behind by a giant flashlight.
I sat on the roof and looked out over the two cities. Despite the faint glow, San Diego was the one that seemed like a big black nothing. Tijuana itself was alive, rubbing against me crudely, mockingly, lovingly. I went back downstairs to write it all down in my journal, but when I got to my room I just sat there. I stayed like that for a while in the dark. It felt good not to have any lights.
When I met Eric Akoto, a few months back, I did it through words. A letter received at the Embassy and replied the same way. From the very beginning it was fairly easy to be on the same page and within a blink of an eye we were talking words rather than writing them; words about the English and Spanish languages, about literature as an effective way to build bridges of understanding amid peoples and countries. They were words about authors and their work, British and Mexican, past and present; authors that represent the best of their cultures. So when he pointed at the possibility of dedicating a Litro Magazine edition to Mexico and its literature, both of our eyes sparkled; just like words do in novels, essays and poems.
As the Ambassador of Mexico to the Court of St James´s, and as a writer, I fully acknowledge the important role literature plays both in Britain and Mexico; a relevance perfectly reflected by this wonderful Litro Magazine edition dedicated to celebrating and sharing Mexico’s literary creativeness with British readers, editors and writers.
During the last few months, while preparing this edition of Litro, I had the opportunity to exchange points of view with poets and novelists, as well as young writers, about Mexico’s main literary assets and renewed creative vitality, about literature’s links to politics and diplomacy. For many years, diplomatic life has been linked to literature. Great Mexican minds like Alfonso Reyes, Carlos Fuentes, Octavio Paz, and Sergio Pitol fostered brilliant diplomatic liaisons between Mexico and the rest of the world, based on our country’s imaginative power and rich culture.
Throughout 2015, as we celebrate the ‘Year of Mexico in the United Kingdom’ and ‘Year of the United Kingdom in Mexico’, literature will again be at the forefront of our efforts to strengthen the ties between Mexico and Britain. On the one hand, Mexican publishing will be showcased at the London Book Fair. On the other hand, the United Kingdom will be the guest of honour at the Guadalajara Book Fair, the world’s largest Spanish language book fair and the second largest globally. As the famous campaign says, “literature is – definitely – great”.
Literature has always been part of this longstanding relationship across the Atlantic Ocean since both countries first established diplomatic ties back in 1825. Octavio Paz, our Literature Nobel laureate, spent a year in Cambridge while Carlos Fuentes lived for over two decades in London. Through the carefully curated pages of this Litro Magazine edition you will find what lies ahead. Brilliant young novelists, playwrights and poets who represent the future of Mexico and that will undoubtedly become the new bridges that connect both of our countries through the power and beauty of their written words.
Ambassador of Mexico to the Court of Saint James Guest Translator March 2015
Litro #142: Mexico – Letter from the Editor
When I say or write the word Mexico, I always think that the word itself is an enchantment. It sounds beautiful, looks striking on the page and always makes me feel I should salute or kneel. The word represents the country perfectly, as Mexico has produced some of the world’s great art and literature and continues to do so.
This special Mexican issue of Litro Magazine speaks to the many voices writing on Mexico in different languages and forms. For some reason, playwrights and screenwriters are so rarely included in literary magazines. Here, however, we include a short dialogue by leading playwright Ximena Escalante. This edition also showcases Chloe Aridjis, a Mexican writer who writes in English. Aridjis, like myself and others such as DBC Pierre or the screenwriter and director Rodrigo Garcia, is a part of a tradition that can claim the English language inside a Mexican context.
Litro #142: Mexico also represents Mexico’s indigenous world thanks to a poem by Natalia Toledo, who writes in both Spanish and Zapotec, her mother tongue. Aline Davidoff’s piece on The Herrera-Harfuch Art Collection honours the unique bond that painters and writers have always had in Mexico. This is the very first time an article on the unique collection has appeared in print.
As a former President of PEN Mexico during the time when the killing of journalists began to escalate, and as the author of a novel on stolen girls, I care about the lost and disappeared voices of Mexico. Therefore, this issue contains an unpublished poem – unknown even in Spanish – written by Samuel Noyola, whose work was admired by many poets including Octavio Paz. Noyola disappeared in 2007 and it is presumed that he died homeless on the streets of Mexico City. The poet and journalist Alicia Quiñones gave me this poem. The cover photograph by Miguel Calderon of a vulture on a highway sign that spells Acapulco was chosen for Litro before the recent violent events in Mexico’s State of Guerrero. Now it feels prophetic.
There is such a great wealth of talent among the emerging writers in Mexico that it is hard to decipher and recognize the voices that will take a place in the canon; but here we include the works of poet Sara Uribe and fiction writer Daniel Krauze to represent the younger, newer voices emerging in Mexico.
Lastly, while it is obviously impossible for a small selection of this kind to represent the diverse voices writing in Mexico today, it is interesting to note that, months after the selection for these pages was made, two writers were awarded important literary prizes. Alvaro Enrigue was given the Elena Poniatowska Prize, and Luis Miguel Aguilar was awarded the Ramón López Velarde Prize for poetic excellence.
Jennifer Clement Guest Editor Mexico City, 2015
She tried to straighten her thoughts, give them some order and linearity, and when that didn’t work she tried to imagine herself elsewhere, on a mountain or coast far from the city, rather than on the Central line with its erratic movement and office-bound passengers and the prickly silence of those torn from sleep. She and her mother had been lucky to find seats; at that hour the tube was nearly full, a geometric overload of skirts and suits, and wherever she turned she saw freshly combed hair and painted faces and newspapers and briefcases all vying for space.
“You know, you could have died.” Her mother lowered her voice in the hope that none of the other passengers would hear.
“Well the point is, I didn’t.”
“You nearly did.”
“Don’t you have a sweater in your bag?”
“I gave it away.”
“You gave it away?”
“This morning. To one of the nurses.”
With something close to nostalgia, N. thought back on the small room she’d just left behind, its itchy grey blanket and sweat-faded sheets, and the dent in the wall, courtesy of a former patient, in which her own fist had fit perfectly. Now that she’d left she found herself missing the kind female voices that roused her each morning, voices that for a few seconds invoked the promise of a new life, voices she preferred to that of her mother’s. And she thought back too on the strange dreams she’d had, dangerous and ornate, dreams unlike the ones outside. And then the wallpaper: red and white stripes connecting floor to ceiling, heaven to hell. There was a window, always locked, but as a view N. preferred the walls and the ceiling since they didn’t present any mocking beyond.
In the seat in front of her sat a boy wearing headphones. She hadn’t heard any music in five weeks, she realised, not a note. As soon as she got home she would listen to… everything. Thousands and thousands of songs. She’d go through them all, one by one, day and night, an endless carousel of memories, welcome and unwelcome, round and round, that melodic loop of acceptances and rejections, tiny triumphs and huge disasters. In the clinic, what she’d feared the most was the loss of her memories; now, she was willing to keep them all.
“Which sweater was it?
“Just a sweater.”
“I hope not one of the nice ones I bought you last month.”
“They won’t be on sale again. You won’t have one like that again.”
She shrugged a second time.
“She must have been a very nice nurse to deserve a sweater like that.”
“Yes, she was nice and kind and brought me tea whenever I wanted.”
“Shouldn’t they do that anyway?”
“Well, they don’t.”
Her mother shook her head and mumbled something to herself, as if running a few mental maths, trying to assess whether she had possibly, in this latest guilt venture, been taken for a ride.
N. looked down at her hands, which had nearly recovered their delicate form. There’d been a point when she hadn’t recognized them, they were so purple and swollen she feared they would break off and drift away, the palms puffy and indistinct, a fortune-teller’s nightmare. And then she wondered, as she rubbed them together, what had happened to her gloves, a beautiful pair her grandmother once knit, dark blue with grey borders. They’d begun to feel tight so she’d stowed them away, but where? Well, it didn’t matter, what was gone was gone. Just as long as no one touched her records, the only belongings N. swore to herself she would never sell off. This past year everything, pretty much everything, had gone up in smoke, part of an amazing alchemical transformation of base metal into gold.
She couldn’t help but keep an eye on the doors. Instinct. Each time they opened and closed at a station, an opportunity came and went.
At the next stop two men clutching paper bags from McDonald’s got on. The carriage filled up with the tantalizing smell of french fries.
“I’m cold and I’m hungry.”
“I’ll make you something when we get home.”
“That’s ages away.”
Her mother looked up at the map on the wall. “Only twelve more stops.”
“And then the bus.”
“There shouldn’t be traffic at this hour.”
“I don’t see why we couldn’t take a cab.”
“A cab would’ve cost the same as a day at the clinic.”
“Then think of all the money I’m saving you by leaving now.”
“I just hope Dr. Reid knew what he was talking about when he said you were ready to come home.”
Coming home: once upon a time, quite a while ago now, this phrase was like a magic potion, but the word ‘home’ had now been attached to so many spaces, it’d lost all currency. Each year it had referred to somewhere else, to a different scenario, a different roof, a different set of faces: the rented flat in Bow, the rented flat in Seven Sisters, the family house in Mexico before her mother went off with the Englishman, and of course the string of clinics where she’d been sent after the first so-called intervention.
At Oxford Circus half the carriage disembarked, leaving room for the dozens of passengers who clambered on. Nearly everyone found a seat and those who didn’t grabbed onto the bright red poles and handrails as the tube began to pull out of the station. N. rubbed her arm and thought back on the handsome new patient who’d arrived at the clinic two days earlier. She could still visualise him perfectly, ambling down the corridor with his combed-back hair and long-sleeved turtleneck, no track marks visible, only the familiar scent of melancholy. It was his fourth time there, the nurses said, and they doubted it would be the last. He’d looked over in her direction once or twice, at least she thought he had… If her mother hadn’t arrived so early that morning they might have spoken.
“Twitch, twitch, twitch,” her mother interrupted the reverie. “Twitch twitch twitch. I thought they’d ironed all the twitches out of you.”
“I set some aside for the journey home.”
Yes, her mother had tried. But only for a few months and not hard enough. Her attempts were half-hearted, mechanical, and she’d been careless – forgetting to dispose of expired medication, leaving earrings and banknotes within view, passing on phone calls that should have been screened: endless temptations for the easily tempted. She hadn’t tried as hard as some of the other mothers, at least according to the stories people shared, and she certainly hadn’t been very present in the early days, when N. had desperately needed her.
It was at Chancery Lane that the pigeon flew in, right into the carriage in a clean diagonal sweep, a whisk of all four seasons compressed into one. It was a large pigeon, slate grey with reddish eyes and white-tipped wings, and it entered at the last possible second before the doors banged shut and the tube recommenced its journey.
One moment it had been on a vaulted platform with friends, the next, it found itself alone with the other species inside a closed space in motion. Almost immediately, with the first awkward movements of the tube, the bird turned into a dervish of feathers, panic and confusion. People ducked and dispersed yet it still managed to graze a few heads and shoulders. Two startled young women rose from their seats and hurried to the opposite end of the car. Someone waved a handbag.
The pigeon flapped this way and that and N. caught a glimpse of its underwing, of an inverse serenity, light powdery grey. Each stroke of its wings released a slight breeze, the breeze of hundreds of flights across the city.
“Ssssss,” someone hissed when the bird came too near.
After about a minute or two of useless histrionics, the pigeon seemed to calm down and landed on the floor with a thick, clumsy thud. It surveyed the area and then headed enthusiastically in the direction of the men with bags from McDonald’s. One of them stamped his boot and muttered something in a foreign language. The pigeon backed off.
N. and her mother watched on. The other passengers watched too. No one spoke, no one moved. All eyes were on the bird.
At St. Paul’s, a station N. rarely used, a woman with a dark ponytail got on and took an empty seat near them, straightening out her skirt as she sat down. The woman pulled a novel out from her bag, cracked the spine wide open, and turned to the first page. When the pigeon pecked at something near her feet, she simply moved them a few inches to the left without looking up from her book.
When had she last read? She couldn’t remember. She’d started countless books, of that she was sure, novels and biographies and even some poetry. But despite the warm glow that came out of the pages she would doze off before long and find herself, hours later, with the book in her lap or at her feet, and she’d put it aside and pick up the next one, and this too, she realised, was an endless carousel, though instead of a whole variety of memories the main memory the books brought back was of herself as a student before she dropped out of university, and of her prodigious concentration, remarked on by everyone, and her proud rows of 10’s.
Swoosh, swoosh. The pigeon was back in the air and had begun flapping more frantically than ever. It circled a pole, zipped down the carriage, zipped back near where N. and her mother were sitting. People would hastily make way for it, clearing a path for its desperation, but it didn’t want to see. At one point mid-tunnel it flew into a darkened window and was thrown to the floor for a few seconds before resuming its flight.
At the next station N. grabbed a sports section that had been left behind and tried to usher the bird out but it grew even more flustered and headed in the opposite direction just as the doors were closing.
“He prefers it in here, where it’s warm,” someone said. No one laughed.
At Liverpool Street a serious-looking man in a pinstriped suit strode on and sat directly across from them, the aroma of McDonald’s replaced by the confident reign of cologne. The man was hefty, with cheeks bearing the flush of countryside and pale blue eyes that with one glance sized up the other passengers. He set down his briefcase, wedging it between his polished black shoes, and unfolded the newspaper he had under his arm. Soon all N. could see were shoes, large knuckles and knees and the outspread wings of the Financial Times.
“By the way,” her mother turned to her, “We’ve decided you’re going to Mexico for a year.”
For the first time since her last fix, she was aware of the blood circulating through her body.
“You’re going to live with your father. We’ve discussed it and agree it’s the best option.”
“I’m happy here.”
“You know you’re not. This is your last chance.”
There’d been many last chances; she was nearing the end of her supply.
“What will I do there?”
“You’ll live with your father and start thinking a little more seriously about the future.”
“Of course, the future…”
Little by little, it had come to represent nothing more than a shadowy road lit by fireflies, lined on either side by the silhouettes of people and possibilities that would remain just that: silhouettes.
The woman reading the novel let out a small cry. The pigeon had flown past a little too close, brushing her cheek. In a delayed response she waved a hand in front of her face and leaned back as far as she could but there was no need, it had already flapped away. A grey feather zigzagged to the floor.
“Three more stops,” said N.’s mother.
It was shortly after she said this, N. would never forget, that the pigeon flew right into the centre of the Financial Times. Without blinking, the man in the pinstriped suit lay down his paper and within what seemed like a fraction of a second, grabbed the bird – the whole carriage was now watching – and with his fat knuckles snapped its neck. It was a clean snap, expertly done, as if he’d been snapping birds’ necks his entire life.
One second the pigeon had been tense and aquiver, the next, an immobile lump of grey. Whatever its journey across the city had been, it ended here. The man deposited the corpse on the empty seat next to him, picked up his paper and continued to read.
The act was met with silence. Everyone simply stared at the dead bird, just stared and stared, as if pooled together the intensity of their gaze might resurrect it.
For a few seconds N. fought the impulse to pick up the pigeon and take it outside to bury – the sanitation people would surely just toss it in a bin – but the thought of touching the thing made her queasy. She imagined what it would feel like to hold the feathery corpse, still warmed by its recent life force, and wasn’t sure what was more overpowering, her distress at witnessing such brutality or the guilty flicker of revulsion she’d begun to feel.
As if in quiet defeat, the pigeon’s head lay to one side like the emblem on a fallen coat of arms. Its eye had almost immediately turned white, or perhaps it was the eyelid that had closed, and its legs, already stiff, looked like little pink twigs that could easily break off.
N. turned to look at her mother, who continued staring at the bird, willing her to say something, anything. But no, she kept whatever she was thinking to herself, hands in lap, fingers interlocked.
At the following station, which was open air, the businessman folded his paper, picked up his briefcase and stepped out. The doors of the tube took a few moments to close, and as they stuttered N. gazed out at the sky and the platform and the spaces in between, seized by the urge to grab her bag and run for it, in whatever direction opened up to her. But she remained in her seat and with one strong tug unzipped her jacket, for the temperature inside the carriage suddenly felt very warm
The Crab’s Back
A possum crosses my house’s sky
His hands smell of sandals,
Describe a nocturnal gladiator
That touches and smells women’s sex.
In my dream, someone on the right side
Throws silver coins into a pristine bucket
Oh! Childhood’s sounds.
You will dream of shit and your ancestors
Will say it is good fortune,
Keep that hand on your left pocket
Music on the wrong side;
I was born with two aspects: the written word
And Zapotec’s melody, in order to love
I’ve always used my two hemispheres.
I miss you and all you know
Are the dark woods of ephemeralness,
The click of an eye that opens to take away a piece of something
Just to close again immediately,
Like a shell closes down on feelings;
A hot coin on your back
Or laughing astride
A free animal, or not,
Animals oblige to their fate
Repetition without a reason,
The moon with its milk drawings
With its rabbit looking upon disgraces
Right there, where gaze at a distance seems to unite.
A thorny monkey,
Like taking away thorns after bumping into a cactus,
By taking away spikes you get more splinters.
Was I ever happy?
Yes, when it rained and a dark hand served me
Bean soup on a plate from the crops outside
The golden bowls’ town,
When someone named mirror stayed by my side,
When I flew a kite and lost sight of it,
It’s true, whatever goes up comes down in your face;
When I escaped Uncle shoe-maker’s belt,
When the sun raised and the only thing I had
Was a pig’s yell, previously seen, legs tied,
Next to death’s funny gorge
Stand in line to be sacrificed?
Lightness for paper,
A tyre passes marking your shoes for ever.
I know about spells:
I know how to get rid of sadness,
How to get rid of obsession, of fear:
If I bury myself next to a river
And someone rubs up his testicles against my head,
If I sit looking at the sea
And they find my lost pulse: lylyly, pé, pépé,*
If they spit anisette into my face
If wind takes away sand from my eyes
If they fill me up with toads,
If I lie belly down on the earth while it trembles.
If I read my dreams as predicted by the old lady
Who used to sing to me in childhood: name your sadness,
There’s nothing like knowing what you long for,
To talk about melancholy you need to hold
History and stories on your hand,
You need, amongst other things, a hammock
And loose hours like a pendulum,
What is time?
A dying mother
A wretched father
Destitution turned into stone,
A mountain prayer,
Make love to the one that doesn’t peel you.
I looked at your cat eyes
Savouring an unbuilt possibility,
I just wanted to run away,
Just wanted to run away.
Because my exodus started at eight years old
And where I lived wasn’t barren,
There was a community, fireworks and their shuddering,
There was freedom and mutual trust.
I quarrelled with my tradition
Didn’t allowed it to deflower my hand full of alcohol
Didn’t want to show nothing:
I was never a virgin,
I was always inhabited by ghosts
That assaulted my jute cot,
I never wanted my blood to be pure.
I know about Conquest and its promises
I fought chocolate and mole,
To get rid of the sewing closing my eyelids
I had to hold a torch born from my guts,
I burnt my body so that I could believe in justice
And bumped into ignorance instead,
The news I was eager to embrace showed me their glitz
And my back gave me back the crab’s rear.
Leave in order to always come back
What happens if one sticks to one’s ignorance?
Isn’t it better to suffer one’s inventory?
Now, without haven, nor boat, nor dwelling
I took refuge in silence:
A comatose state.
What does my happiness look like?
I am a fly,
A dot on an almond’s leaf
About to depart, about to deliver,
I’m a buzz in memory’s ear
I tattooed memory too.
A crack through which levity shall not enter
Through which innocence shall not walk
What does it mean to be indigenous?
A bet, sails of grown beards
Never again a place,
A spider looking leather sandal attached to my feet,
A little accumulated salt,
What’s world history?
An eye crying for its neglect.
Flowers know it, as well as peoples
The day happier stories were told
That day we left behind our sufficiency
To give ourselves to a never ending repetition,
Now I know
It is too late.
*Lylyly, pé, pépé.
Sixteenth Century Zapotec onomatopoeia equivalent to the sound made by pain when it walks inside the body.
Translation by Diego Gómez Pickering
In the house where I was born and grew up, the final unexplored frontier, the last stronghold of the old west, the ultimate wild territory was my father’s study, a narrow annex attached to the rest of the property, with olive-coloured walls and moth-eaten furniture, that he used to sequester himself away at night and drink when we lived beneath the same roof and which, after he abandoned us to go to Cancún to work as the manager of an “all inclusive,” my mother filled with chairs, tables, sofas and bookcases, as if that chamber were a mouth she had to muzzle. Then she closed the door, locking it with a key, and didn’t speak of her husband again.
The house belongs to my mother. She inherited it and she decorated it, with the compulsive attention of the unemployed, choosing identical sheets for our beds, the same tapestry wallpaper for all the walls, and baskets full of plastic fruit for the kitchen, the living room, and the dining room. If my brother or I took just one of those fruits and moved it from its position, my mother noticed in less time than the blink of an eye and took us to task. Where did you put my peach? What have you done with my lemons? That melon goes upside down. The pineapple goes in the other basket.
My father left without taking anything with him. I always imagined his flight in fast motion, as if it were part of a caricature, leaving a cloud of dust behind him. A few months after abandoning us, he sent a letter in which he asked our forgiveness for not having said goodbye, assuring us that this new work opportunity would benefit all of us and promising to visit us in February, the off season. Months later we received another letter, congratulating us because soon we would have a little sibling. He had just met his new wife, he told us. Come and visit. You’ll like her, you’ll see.
My mother didn’t touch this subject, but my aunt Elda lost no time in offering her opinion. First he goes off with that slut from work, he knocks her up, and then invites you to Cancún, is that right, Sergio? she asked me, as if I knew what she was talking about and had also drunk four tequilas. Those are chingaderas, my boy. On your heads if you go to see that cynic.
We didn’t go to see him, nor did we talk about the matter between us. My brother began to sleep in my mother’s room, on the carpet on one side of the bed, whereas every afternoon I snuck into the study through the window and, more than delving into the things my father left behind, I inhabited that space as if it were mine. I kept comics, my homework notebooks and sweets in my knapsack, and tried to entertain myself there, among the mountains of furniture and appliances.
I never managed to last more than ten minutes before running back home. At twelve, I was certain that something malignant dwelled in there and that the only way to face it was to have an accomplice who accompanied me.
I convinced my brother to venture in there with me during a family meal one Sunday afternoon, while my mother and my aunts played cards and drank in the living room. Elda’s two daughters, her newborn baby and a two year old girl who had not learned how to talk, slept in my room, and the daughter of the recently-divorced Beatriz had gone on a trip with her father. My brother and I were the only children in a house where the adults paid no attention to us and we were forbidden to watch television. Bored, I challenged him to go into the study with me.
Four years younger than me, my brother was always stick-thin and stuttered, with the sharp features and nervous gestures of a squirrel. He was a boy wracked by incomprehensible fears. My mother couldn’t leave him alone in the car for more than a minute without him beginning to whine like the teakettle, not even the juiciest bribe managed to convince him to get onto the swings, and he wouldn’t eat anything but roast beef and rice with ketchup. I also had fears (what boy of twelve doesn’t?), but they weren’t as obvious nor as absurd as his. He cried when he was left alone; I asked my mother to get out of my room and leave me alone. He trembled in fear the moment he placed one foot on a carousel; I got into the first car of the roller coaster. He refused to try anything new; I asked for a double portion of giblets – even if afterwards I went to the bathroom to throw them up in secret.
Where are you going, kids? Elda asked us when she saw us heading toward the garden. She clutched a small crystal horse in her hand and played cards barefoot, the soles of her feet grey with dust.
We’re going to climb the jacaranda, I answered. My mother looked away from the game and asked my brother to put a sweater on. She asked me to take care of him when we went out. Don’t force Carlitos to climb if he doesn’t want to.
The jacaranda, denuded and dying, was two metres tall. Perhaps it would have grown higher if the garden, a muddy space hardly larger than our bedroom, would have allowed. Behind it, through a narrow hallway where my mother kept the pruning shears, a shovel and a pitchfork, was the study.
Why do you tell lies? my brother asked me, stuttering, as if asking a question were an aggression.
They don’t care what we do, I answered him, without looking him in the face, while I pushed the cold glass of the window inwards.
Barely inside, my brother tensed all his muscles, beat his hands against his chest and began to whine: let’s get out of here, let’s get out of here, let’s get out of here. It was a sunny afternoon, the sky clear of clouds, and the light that filtered through the window revealed a thick patina of unsettled dust. The room had the smell of a public lavatory, barely disguised by the scent of a chain smoker.
Did you piss yourself? I asked my brother, although I knew that the scent of urine was too persistent and rancid to have come from him. He patted his crotch. Of course not, he said, his tongue stumbling on the consonants.
We walked between the furniture along the route that I had opened, myself, on those afternoons on which I escaped from the house to go to the study to eat sweets and read comics. I asked him to be careful, time after time, as if the objects around us were still in use: a torn wicker armchair, a wardrobe with the doors open, plastic bag after bag filled with clothes, and, on the floor, under one leg of the desk, my father’s college degree, in Accounting, with his hair gelled back, his cheeks clean-shorn, and his eyes wide open, possibly surprised by the camera’s flash. I didn’t remember ever seeing him so serious. My father always laughed, he was always telling jokes, tickling us; he was always disguised as a smiling dad.
Did you hear that, my brother asked. I placed my index fingers to my lips and asked him to be quiet. I listened to the distant murmur of my mother and her sisters chatting in the living room as they played and, then, I heard a short, sharp squeak, the acoustic equivalent of a pinch. The moment we became quiet, the squeaking multiplied. It sound like a choral tantrum. In miniature, the sound reminded me of my own brother, crying like a little girl because my mother had forgotten to come pick us up from school.
He begged me not to look for where the sound was coming from, but I didn’t pay him any attention. I put my shoulder to the wall, facing the chair where I always sat, full of crumbs and candy wrappers, and with an effort I pushed it toward the middle of the room. Suddenly, the squeaks became clearer. What was crying was there, inside or beneath the leather armchair, just one metre from us.
I slipped into the gap that had opened between the back of the chair and the wall, I crouched down on my knees, stuck my hand in between the ground and the bottom of the chair, rested my cheek against a spongey mat and peeked at what was under there.
I pulled back immediately, so quickly that I banged my neck against the wall behind me. What is it? What is it? What is it? my brother asked, also moving back like a crab, his foot breaking the glass frame of the diploma.
Come and see, I told him. Take a peek.
I don’t want to.
Don’t be a sissy, dude. Come on.
I let him pass by, so that he was closer. Then we crouched down at the same time. This time I didn’t stick my hand inside the chair, out of fear that those things might bite me. I only stretched out my index finger and pointed to the mound of tiny little bodies, all pink and skin, piled one on top of the other on a bundle of paper and cotton. Each the size of my pinkie, the animals moved in restless spasms, with a repulsive clumsiness. They didn’t look like newborn animals but instead creatures in their final throes, about to die.
What are they? he asked me, placing the palm of his hand over mine.
I withdrew my hand, pulling away from him. What do you mean what are they? They’re rats. What else would they be?
We need to tell Mom, he said, standing up.
What for? You want her to yell at you for coming in here?
My brother assured me that rats were dangerous. They infect you with rabies, he said. That’s what Michael, his only friend, had told him.
They’re just babies. They’re not going to do anything, I told him, trying to calm him down, but I couldn’t convince him. He climbed out through the window and headed straight into the house. When I reached him, he was in the middle of recounting the anecdote. Exaggerating, like always, my brother swore to my mother that the nest was immense, that there were hundreds of rats, that the entire place reeked of animal excrement.
I thought that my mother would get mad when she discovered that we had gone into the study that she herself had locked with a key, but apparently the nest was a more urgent problem to deal with than the mischief of her sons. Elda went to my bedroom, to check on her daughters, while Beatriz and my mother left their cards on the table and went out into the garden.
We followed them towards the study.
My mother opened the door, followed by her sister, who pinched her nose shut with two fingers. Jijos, Beatriz exclaimed, those damned rats have already gotten into everything. You can tell just from the smell.
I accompanied them inside, happy not to be alone and, above all, happy that the most boring afternoon of the week had turned into a hunting expedition. My brother didn’t share my enthusiasm. He remained outside, standing beneath the jacaranda, as if he were hugging himself.
I’ve seen them now, my mother said, peeking under the chair. Sergio, go to the kitchen and bring back a broom, a dustpan and a plastic bag, OK?
Excited, I obeyed. I returned with my hands full, stumbling against the broom my mother had asked for. My brother remained outside, while Beatriz and Elda shifted the furniture around the armchair.
What are you going to do? I asked them.
My mother spoke. We’re going to stick them in the bag and throw them out into the street, she told me.
The operation consisted of four stages. First, Elda and Beatriz moved the armchair away from the wall. Then, my mother put the dustpan on the floor and swept the nest toward it. Finally, she lifted the dustpan and dumped its contents into the bag. From the moment my aunts pushed the first piece of furniture, the little things didn’t stop squealing, sounding increasingly more pitiful with each cry. As my mother took the bag out to the garden, I saw them moving backlit against the plastic, indistinguishable from each other, like an amorphous and pulsating mass. I didn’t stop smiling, but I began to feel disgusted.
Elda, grab the shovel, my mother said.
The shovel? What do you need the shovel for? I asked.
By this time, my brother had already hidden behind the tree.
My mother tied a knot in the bag, placed it on the ground, took the shovel with both hands and, in a single circular movement, lifted it upwards and then let it fall, directly on the tiny animals. You could hear a damp, squirting sound, like a tomato squished between your fingers. A tiny squeak could still be heard, until my mother lifted the shovel again and, with the flat side, banged and banged and banged the bag until its contents no longer seemed to be made up of tiny rats but instead a puddle of brown paint.
The friction of the shovel against the ground had torn the bag. Chunks of viscera and purple foetal skin poked through a hole. My brother began to cry and ran inside the house, covering his eyes with his forearm. My mother pushed her hair behind her ears and asked me to help her throw the remains into the trash.
I picked up the bag, surprised at how little it weighed, and carried it to the garage, leaving behind a dribbled trail of blood along the way. I thought to open the bag before throwing it away. It wasn’t the morbid impulse of someone who looked out of a car window when passing a traffic accident. I wanted to see if some rat were still alive. I untied the knot, I couldn’t help it. Inside, the bodies were all mixed together in a bulbous paste of skin, sinew, organs, and a fresh red, almost warm. I saw the little feet of one, the grey eyes of another, the tail of a third. I don’t know why, but I felt a tightness in my throat. Then I threw the bag into the garbage can, among the scraps of food and empty milk cartons.
When I went back inside, my mother congratulated me for having found the nest. Elda served herself another tequila. Beatriz lit a cigarette. My brother cried in the bathroom.
I stopped visiting my father’s study, even when my mother turned it into a game room, a guest room, a gym, and finally, now married to my stepfather, a bar.
Many years passed before I could break free from the memory of those rats. First I imagined them alive, wandering around the nest, and then dead, asphyxiated, rotting in the bag. Then I began to think of their mother, who we never found. I was sure that she was still there, enormous and hurt, hidden among the pipes of the house, spying on me from a corner of the living room, ready to exact vengeance. I dreamed that she slipped inside my bed and, little by little, with patience, she gnawed away my fingers while I slept.
Carlos died at 17 in a highway accident.
I graduated with a degree in Accounting. I got married. Had two daughters.
I should be afraid of human beings, but the only thing I’m afraid of is rats.
Translation by Lawrence Schimel
The Street Seller’s Song
Forget the shameless clocks
Return the contortionist fish to the sea
Romp on a mattress of wild leaves
Inhale with the mind in an indigo zero
Deposit silence in a ballot box
Congregate a circle of holy water
Step on the grapes of your wine
Accustom yourself to fly with crutches
To cover the rough weather of her eyes
To descend a mineshaft
Become friends with a panther in heat
Awaken as a witch on the weekend
Create a moneybox for sleep
Donate your fingers to domestic fire
Fast on language in the middle of a fast
Dance barefoot in the dark
Spell out your sins aloud
Translation by Jennifer Clement
Every House Learnt How to Burn
One: Is it possible that I once..? That I? That before?
Two: Yes, it is possible that your name.
Two: It is possible the bodies.
Two: It is possible that your name and the bodies. That you once. That before.
One: And the isles? The conversations? The delay?
One: The houses we abandoned? All those patios?
One: Did we leave the lights on? Did we leave the doors unlocked?
One: Were we the ones that on escaping..?
Two: Yes, it’s possible we were the ones. It’s possible; all the patios and all the doors, and all those abandoned houses with the lights on. The delay and the conversations; but not the isles. Those belong to fiction and asylum.
One: Let’s say, was there ever an isle bearing your name? Was there a before? Was there an I?
Two: Yes, there was a name and there were the bodies; a before and an us.
One: There was an I, then. Isles.
Two: It’s also possible that I was lying and that the isles, and the I, and the could have.
Two: It’s also possible that I wasn’t lying and that in present tense there are no hurries and no escapes. No nothing.
One: Is the isle of us possible?
Two: Yes, it is possible. The journey and the delay. Yes.
One: But, is it also possible you are lying?
Two: Yes, it is possible; the name, the I, the isles.
Translation by Diego Gómez Pickering
It’s the type of business where those with a PhD are the unprepared ones; they had to go to school and waste their time while the rest embraced universal culture without aides and from an early age. Frankly, there are assistants who are quite simple and accountants with mental retardation but overall employees have a terrific intellectual calibre.
The best are those who didn’t even finished High School. As an example there is this one who wanted to become a professional football player. He had some success at a youngster’s league team but his father, an engineer, prevented him going further. He then read every book, admired every painting and listened to every record he bumped into; just to contravene his dad. He ended up incapable of joining any other sort of industry. There is this other one, who retired yesterday in a hurry, who is able to translate in six different languages; she’s invented two perfumes and during her free time she writes advisory papers for the development of Brazilian aerospace programs. There is a Chilean who sees series of figures in action where for the rest of us there’s only a bicycle, for example. He asks: what is the basic ingredient in your bike’s alienation; titanium or aluminium? One responds: Aluminium, why? He looks up, closing his left eye, and adds: 28.3 kilometres an hour without considering slopes; not bad. He’s spent his life turning cultural entrepreneurs into millionaires; by visiting their shops and studying the relevant yellow pages he is able to advise on investments since he already knows how much will be sold during their first year. However his true speciality, in which he never fails, is Thomism; he discusses Councils as if discussing restaurants and he’s a Jew. There’s a physicist who invents motors at his own place. He can distinguish errata just by looking at a document and left the movie industry at 20 after concluding Godard, for whom he worked doing research, was Maoist not out of conviction but stupidity.
It was on all those people’s computer screens that the decisive email inviting the entire personnel to attend the Second Evaluation Meeting on ISO 9000 advancements appeared. In the company all of us understood the partners’ upsetting fixation with our way of getting things done and the sad confusion of the Director General, recently arrived from his MBA and Milky Way’s rotation; so we were polite but condescending and foolish at the same time. Nobody spoke on time to stop the Certification process, maybe it was never possible to do so since the Director had learnt through his private university ministerial teachers those communication strategies of the revolutionary General type that sometimes are mixed up with political ability. When we realized it, the several thousand dollar contract was a reality; a deal with the most unlikely basic group of hustlers on Earth. We had nurtured the monster with a funny attendance at the Total Quality workshops and when we were called to attend the First Evaluation Meeting many amongst us had something else to do. Only the accountants, the secretaries, the janitors and the Director General attended; hence the scarcely veiled ferocity of the Second Meeting invitation. We thought of our kids, of our medical insurance, of the gas coupons, and ran to them en masse.
As usual, there were coffee and nibbles at the entrance. Apparently that’s part of every hustler’s manual: you don’t have to be a charmer just badly pretend to be one and offer coffee and nibbles. We ate them happily chatting in the auditorium’s hall while waiting for the Director General to arrive, always behind his tie which he would wear tomorrow to Wall Street and the one he wore yesterday to the City of London, we proved that scientifically. None of us conceived entering the auditorium before the Meeting started, busy as we were eating the hustlers’ nibbles. Had we done that the smartest amongst us might had given an alarm signal and we would have escaped in order to form an ironic resistance, this time around voluntarily speaking. The tornado Director passed in front of us ten minutes late for the Meeting, cooling our coffees, and we entered the auditorium behind him.
Seats were displayed by Project or Management Offices. There were groups of seats labelled under handmade banners: a broom stick with a paper note announcing Humanities, Sciences, Cutting edge Research, Philosophy and Arts; or Maintenance, Finance, Purchases. Each banner included a crowning, ferocious animal. In our case it was a wolf, we envied the Humanities team, the favourite ones, who had the jaguar. You were to sit under your banner next to the rest of the team of your office, which in our case included a secretary, an errand boy, two assistants and a sizeable group of doctors and people way too illustrated to deserve a PhD.
It started with an extravagant speech, apparently inspirational, by one of the hustlers, who showed very weird images on his computer. Cartoons of Americans, or people of the sort; all were either blonde or black; measuring graphics or working in front of their desks next to what seemed like a ventilator at top speed. What the speech really inspired was laughs, but all of us restrained ourselves because we are quite polite and because the previous afternoon we thought of our kids, our gas coupons and our medical insurance. We were invited to commit to Top Quality as if it was really hot or cooked great. At the climax of the speech, the General Director looked at the sky – or at the ceiling since we were inside an auditorium – and asked who were we tied to. Tradition? noted someone from the Arts Office timidly. An uncomfortable silence followed. Surely it was one of the seven people that failed the anonymous ISO exam the previous week. No, he said, we are tied to our client. Then I remembered one of the workshop sessions where we were told there were internal and external clients. For over forty minutes we discussed who was whose client within the company. At a certain point someone gave the example, if I go for lunch to my house at the end of the month and bring along my monthly salary who is the client? Me or my wife? The hustler said it was the wife; someone from the Human Resources Office thought it was the husband; a somewhat naïve and disoriented girl from the Cutting Edge Research Office said it was actually the children. What if there are no children? insisted the sensitive one. The Chilean intervened to calm the waters, and ask us to continue – the hustlers, like parking lots, charged on an hourly basis – and answer the following question as homework: how may clients fit onto a pin’s head?
After the Director’s speech we listened to those of the managers, quite funny frankly; it was obvious none of them had a clue except for the sales manager who was always clear about who was whose client. Later on, they organized an award ceremony in which the guy next to me got a pen without really knowing the reason for it. We applauded vigorously.
It was then that we learnt how to stand on our own feet; we who thought so highly of ourselves. We were buttoning our jackets and getting ready to go back to our cubicles to share ironies when they turn off the lights. There was confusion, a feeling we were getting used to. Then there was fear, not because of the dark but because of our medical insurance and the gas coupons of the technicians in charge of the event. The screen lit up with the company’s logo, Wagner was coming out of the sound system and we watched images of ourselves in our desks mixed with images of athletes breaking world records and climbers dominating mountains. Jesus! came out of the mouths of the most agnostic Philosophy fundamentalists. A spotlight set on the centre of the podium illuminating the hustlers’ leader, the only interesting one of them because of his obvious hypocrisy. He asked us for a war cry; he asked it of us, who thought heaven looks like a library. The downside of it is we thought again of our cars without gas and of our kids deprived of insurance and then we gave in. Once more, he said, and we followed suit. Once again, another one, once more. Now close your eyes and hold hands with each other. No, one of the oldest ones yelled. Yes, he said; feel the power of music, feel the power of music, feel the power of music. And we did. After three or four minutes of this nightmare during which the only thing we felt was the sweaty hands of the secretary and the errand boy, he screamed: synergy has been done. Lights came back. Those who believed in the miracle applauded.
The rest of us lined up and left the auditorium in pain, following our banners. We were prisoners of war. What we had always been and never noticed for thinking so high of ourselves, immersed in our books. Or maybe what everyone knew but no one dared to tell us: the radiant loot of a secular faction.
Translation by Diego Gómez Pickering
When the crab advances towards the moon
The sea of love crashes into mirrors
And there are readers filled with fortune.
Filled with fortune, the readers
Arrive at the love of mirrors
When the moon falls towards the crab.
The moon falls. The sea crashes. Mirrors
Are dying of love for the crab
That risks its life for the moon.
Then the moon fills up. Readers,
Before the moon, are like the crab:
They fall, they rise, towards mirror love.
May you have crab, readers, and moon.
May you find yourselves in the sea of mirrors;
May you be filled with the sea and with fortune.
May you crash into new seas, may you be crabs
In mirrors of moon and readings.
And love in excess, filled with mirrors.
Let’s fall towards the sea of crabs:
There the seas overflow with love,
There begins the reading of the moon.
Translation by Kathleen Snodgrass
Fedra and Other Greeks
NAXOS’ BAR. A FASHIONABLE BAR IN TOWN.
MAN: Do you smoke?
MAN: Do you come here very often?
MAN: Don’t you speak?
ARIADNA: What do you want?
MAN: I can make you happy, you know.
MAN: Yes, come with me.
ARIADNA: To your bed…
MAN: …Well… If you put it that way…
ARIADNA: How am I supposed to put it?
MAN: You look lonely. I can keep you company.
ARIADNA: Between the sheets.
MAN: …I love the way you say it… Yes, I can make you have a wonderful night.
ARIADNA: I hate nights.
MAN: Let’s wait for sunrise.
ARIADNA: I hate sunrises.
MAN: Why don’t we have a drink, we laugh and have fun?
ARIADNA: Your way of conceiving fun bores me.
MAN: What’s your name?
ARIADNA: I couldn’t care less about all names in this world.
MAN: Yours must be beautiful, just like you: (HE CARESSES HER LEG)
ARIADNA: And yours disgusting, just like you: (SHE PUSHES AWAY HIS HAND)
MAN: I’m only trying to be nice to you.
ARIADNA: I don’t like your pleasantries.
MAN: That’s because you don’t know them well: (HE TOUCHES HER BREASTS)
ARIADNA: (PUSHING AWAY HIS HAND) They repel me anyhow.
MAN: Wow! I love your temperament. (HE KISSES HER)
ARIADNA: (SHE SLAPS HIM)
MAN: (HE KISSES HER AGAIN)
ARIADNA: (SHE SLAPS HIM AGAIN)
MAN: How funny! I’m mad about you… I want to get to know you better…
ARIADNA: Get to know me better? Look at me: this is me. This is my head; you know what a head is? It’s an organ that makes a constant hideous noise. You must believe it’s used for thinking but no, don’t believe so. It’s not used for thinking but for making noise. This is the heart; you know what the heart is? Do you know it’s a beating organ? Its constant ta-ta-ta-ta-ta reminds me I’m alive because sometimes I forget. Does it happen to you too? It’s horrible to have noisy and beating organs inside the body. These are my hands. Look at them closely. Notice how they suffer from amnesia, they don’t know what to do. This is my chest, divided in two. It doesn’t work. I don’t even know why I have it. The stomach is destroyed. It was pushed so hard that it burst. Kidneys, liver, bladder and all those things inside; they are there, waiting for the time to pass by. This is my sex. I assume you know quite well how uncomfortable it could be. Sometimes it betrays me. And, well the legs and the feet are the basis of all the rest. My tongue is acid, look at it. And that’s it, there’s no more. I am useless; useless because on top of everything else I carry with me an unbearable suffering. Does it hurt to you? Have you ever experienced the feeling of feeling? If you think it is something that comes and goes you are mistaken, because it isn’t. Suffering doesn’t come and go it remains, always. You are born with it, it’s innate. You might think you suffer because of a loss, or you might think you suffer for abandonment, or even think you suffer for not being capable of changing things, for being incapable of cutting into pieces your disgrace. But that is not the case. Once you suffer reasons stop mattering; you can feel it, name it the way you want, but suffering is suffering and that’s it.
MAN: …mmh…are you a poet? How thrilling! Really, listen…what was your name again? Let’s go together. That way you can keep on reciting your poetry to me… keep on talking about your body…
ARIADNA: For how long?
MAN: What do you mean how long?
ARIADNA: Minutes, you can only give me a few minutes. You know what you are? You are a cheap guy, you are not willing to give, to share nothing other than a few minutes. Minutes are nothing, they come and go. Watch, listen how they go away. Minutes are nothing, and that is what you want to give me: nothing. In that case you’d better leave.
MAN: Hey, you know what? You are sort of… I don’t know, you are making me nervous. (HE COUGHS). Why do you say those things about me? What did I do to you? It affects me you know. I feel bad you see? (HE COUGHS). You made me feel really bad… You are sick, really. There’s some people that… What’s wrong with you? (HE COUGHS AND LEAVES)
ARIADNA: …Good bye…
Translation by Diego Gómez Pickering
The Herrera-Harfuch Art Collection
Every time I visit the Herrera-Harfuch art collection, every time I’ve gone up – because there is an ascent, never as dangerous as the descent, even though, often, during the climb one is filled with a glass or two of wine or some other intoxicant, a couple of tequilas or whiskies on winter nights – every time I am under the impression that I have seen only a small fragment of the collection’s great body of work. A slice of an enormous landscape wisely folded into the furrows of the collection’s archives. These wines and spirits consumed before going up accompany the greatest delicacies of Polish cuisine found in Mexico. Everyone knows what their favourite dish is – perhaps a few juicy slices of duck in a sweet-and-sour sauce, fish cooked just right to retain its tenderness and not lose the vigour of the sea, or minced meat wrapped in cabbage leaves drenched in the most delicious red sauce that is orange, really, due to the way the mix of tomatoes and paprika gel during the process of cooking. This is served on white dishes with colourful puréed roots that are so much a part of survival in northern Europe. But back to Mexico City, the Condesa neighbourhood to be exact, where you can eat on the terrace almost year-round. The caloric impact of the delicacies served by Gabriel Herrera take on other dimensions, and I’m not speaking only of the shapes of the diners’ bodies, but of what happens to the perceptions and the minds of those of us who dine here.
The first time (and I don’t know why each time seems to be the first) I passed through a tiny alley next to the restaurant kitchen and went up under the light of the stairs’ bare bulb, a light that undresses the eye in preparation for what lies behind the apartment door. I had moved only a few metres, but found myself as if in another world – the home where the collection lives.
The door opens and one puts one foot after the other into a territory whose first effect is the sensation of having flown a thousand miles away from the Condesa. Simultaneously, one realizes that what has taken place is that one has landed in the very entrails of the neighbourhood. In a place where one can see the pictorial interior of the artists that inhabit the span between the second half of the 20th and into the 21st century. And also the visual touch and flow of a man and of Consuelo, his wife, who have lovingly put together the ripest fruit of these artists. Collecting, let us not forget, is a term that originates from the harvest and also from the time before humans harvested; it is a term derived from the foraging for food in forests, near rivers, in lakes and seas. In what the world was then, in the bounty of the earth.
Behind the door there are works on every centimetre of wall, provided there is space enough for the eye to see. There is art in every nook and cranny, pieces in every corner – to surmise, there are pictures and objects everywhere.
Basically, the collection brings together artists born after 1950, with the exception of Gilberto Aceves Navarro, Pedro Friedeberg, Jose Luis Cuevas, Brian Nissen and Arturo Rivera. Each of these older painters can be seen as an important tributary of a great river that will be discovered in decades to come. These four artists had already started to produce work and gain recognition while the younger generation was being formed under their influence.
Gabriel Herrera says that his interest in art first came from impressions he had at a young age. His mother learned to appreciate painting in her hometown of Tecoh in Yucatan, where she grew up, “humbly, surrounded by orchards, Mayan culture and the Popol Vuh. I remember seeing art as a child,” recounts Herrera, “I don’t remember my level of interest, but I liked it and sensed that I was facing something exceedingly important.” Years later, on a visit to the Met in New York City with his mother, he realized she really knew the paintings, and even identified them: author, subject, everything. “‘Look!’ it appeared she said from one narrow hall to another, ‘that one there is a Brueghel. Brueghel – The Elder. The painting is called The Harvest’”.
That’s how the first seed was planted. Years go by, during which Gabriel Herrera creates the Specia restaurant. In 1995, the collection is born. This collection is now eighteen years old and already has 700 original works and approximately 100 prints and etchings. The collection owes much to the exchange between the collector and the artists without which, Herrera says, it would have been virtually impossible to grow at this rate. Eighteen years are few for the consolidation of such a significant gathering of work. And, as we know is the case in the nascent stage of these endeavours, the exchange that occurs between collector and artist can go far beyond the material sphere, even if the barter happens through it: a canvas, pigments, oil, objects, things that get put together and mixed inside the kitchen of each particular artist.
“I think there are two ways of collecting: the kind that’s done for the love of art, and the sad kind that’s done for financial or social investment. Many of today’s collections are formed by wealthy people who hire dealers and curators who predict what will be important in the future. The last thing these people have in mind is consistency in the quality of the objects gathered. They buy signatures and acquire artists that will help them gain social status regardless of whether the work excites or transmits something. What matters is that it is fashionable. That cold indifference is felt and makes the collection something soulless, without historical reason and without poetry.
“It is a fact that collecting art is a reflection of the desire to possess beauty. What is more enriching for the soul than beauty? That’s why I wonder what collectors of empty boxes and balloons must feel,” Herrera says.
The experience of exchanging is different from the experience of buying. “I never set out to be a collector. One day I realized that I already had many paintings and other works of art. Museums and exhibits started to request pieces, and I understood something important had happened through my friendship with these artists. These relationships have developed naturally. Much of what I’ve collected is related to the endless conversations I’ve had with the artists.
“Artists are different kinds of beings than you and I; they’re in constant turmoil, their soul on tenterhooks. Gabriel Macotela and Gustavo Monroy are both artists with whom I’ve developed strong bonds of friendship. They are an essential part of the collection. Gustavo Monroy is a painter who works with unpleasant themes and is one of the greatest artists I know. It was with him that I understood that people don’t like to be confronted with difficult works because, in most cases, it confronts them with themselves, and that is not easy – especially if you don’t know who you really are. I don’t like collecting landscapes and still lifes; I think art should make you shudder, make you think and analyse the reason for existence. Jorge Alzaga (now deceased) for example, was one of the painters who, although perhaps not a great artist, was an extraordinary human being who taught me to look at art with watchful eyes.”
In the apartment that the collection and its meticulous records and files inhabit, there is a flavour – the inevitable result of the confusion between sight and taste under these circumstances – which is elusive, hard to grasp. I explain it to myself by inventing a story: Someone extraordinarily careful from the aforementioned generation had the good fortune of living in the same nice, spacious apartment since the Eighties and stayed there. He stayed there without collecting dust, or old shoes, or dead files filled with decades of phone bills and extinct bank accounts. Neither did he gather burnt pans, nor synthetic clothing turned to shreds that hurt the skin. No, this person even bottled the light coming through the window during those years: particularly dense but not devoid of beauty. And he collected the images and forms born of that light. He meticulously recorded the history and provenance of each piece, simplifying art historians’ lives. A silence envelops the visitor. A silence that is not reverential but contemplative, inquisitive. Perhaps the gaze of Gabriel himself. The love of having gathered the voices. Forgive me, synaesthesia wins: the gathering of flavours that are images that are voices that make up the collection.
Over the years, stories have come to hang from the paintings that hang on the walls. Captions or narrative records that adhere to the image and enrich the texture of the object, as if adding another layer of depth, of sense, of significance.
Gabriel recounts, “One afternoon I visited Gabriel Macotela, who was painting a boat onto a beautiful fabric for a collector from Valle de Bravo. I told him I’d like to have something similar. He told me he’d paint me an entire fleet. I had a frame of 1.98m by 1.98m made. I had the finest linen I could find stretched over it. It didn’t enter his study so he worked on it in a warehouse I have next to the apartment. He painted it there. It’s called Sea of Our Lives. I documented the creative process photographically and now the painting hangs in front of Consuelo’s desk. It’s one of the dearest pieces in our collection.”
These works seem to have a life of their own. The paintings develop close relationships and converse among each other. We are talking here about a crude reality, a group of artists who look at the exterior and interior world without any prohibitions and without trying to please anyone. For example, the large paintings by Daniel Lezama don’t correspond to any official version of the nation’s history. They correspond with his story, his own. His visions hit you hard and are not easy to digest. Herrera appreciates raw truth.
The four children of the Herrera-Harfuch marriage grew up among the collection and the challenges it faced. Herrera recounts a beautiful story of how one of his daughters offered to leave college when she found out he couldn’t raise the money to keep an incredible painting of Daniel Lezama’s, The Prodigal Mother. She suggested he use her tuition money to pay for it. The father didn’t accept his daughter’s sacrifice. The painting went to a European collection.
A man and a woman unite, create a family, and find a way to provide for that family. Art enters the construction through a natural opening. The collection grows with dedication and a special spice that visits the Specia restaurant. There’s something easy about its growth, similar to the way plants grow with water and sunlight. What matters most in life is the life lived – the collection of precious moments that occur and in which we shift from one group of people to another in the passing of time and generations. There are cases in which images adhere to families – images produced by primitive tools, animal hair attached to pieces of wood and securely fastened with string or wire, which allow pigments to glide over fabric. Or images created with the help of chisels, rasps, sandpaper… Images that will survive us all and which the collector lovingly rescues from the studios of those who need to register the liquid flow of the visual.
Translation by Sylvia Blackmore
Group Dynamics: World Cup Profiles, vol. i
Group A: Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, Cameroon
For any host nation, there is the heavy expectation to perform. With Brazil, however, the pressure is as intense as the combined weight of the country’s 199 million souls, all of whom demand success.
Brazil have Neymar, the 22-year-old poster kid of this World Cup. The boy possesses a devilish flash and flair more readily displayed for his country than it is for his club Barcelona, where he experienced a somewhat disappointing season. In central defence they rely on the stolid brilliance of Thiago Silva and the postmodern exuberance of David Luiz, for whom the entire pitch is a stage and defending merely a stepping stone on the path to footballing enlightenment. Luiz is mad – and madness can both hurt and aid a team.
Despite their myriad talents, Brazil’s path out of the group will not be as simple as stepping stones. Sixteen years ago at France 1998, Croatia rammed playmakers galore into their midfield for their first World Cup – and finished a surprising third. Those faintly glorious days have faded, but in the dual threat of Real Madrid’s Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitić of Seville they possess danger. The main striker is Mario Mandžukić, a whippet-bendy beanpole of a man who plays like a cross between a proverbial lamppost and a verbial predator, alternating between amateurish uselessness and professional cool with the flick of a proverbial switch. Croatia will give Brazil a game on June 12th– and they might even pip them to the top of the group.
Mexico lurched their way through qualifying like a drunk Englishman on Acapulco Beach, only making it to the big dance by beating New Zealand in a playoff over two legs. Javier Hernandez of Manchester United is the main star – a striker as comfortable poaching goals as a bed and breakfast owner with an egg and a pan of boiling water. Mexico are the neo-classicists of the group, constantly harking back to former glories. Their best World Cups occurred nearly three decades ago, a statistic that the new generation looks unlikely to improve upon.
Cameroon have the best nickname in the group – “The Indomitable Lions”- and the worst chance of roaring or even clawing their way out of it. Samuel Eto’o provides the blunted, ageing spearhead for a nation whose greatest World Cup moment came back in 1990, when they made it to the quarterfinals thanks to the indomitable Roger Milla.
Prediction: 1) Croatia 2) Brazil 3) Mexico 4) Cameroon
Group B: Spain, Netherlands, Chile, Australia
Group B should play out as a fist fight between Spain and the Dutch for first place, with Chile darting around the fray and landing the occasional significant blows of their own. Australia are the group’s pacified pacifists, their claws well and truly withdrawn.
Spain have won the last three major international tournaments – Euro 2008, World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012 – through a progressively more soporific brand of passing football they call “tiki-taka”. The theory, and the practice, is that the unfairly gifted Spanish midfielders Xavi, Andrés Iniesta and occasionally Manchester City’s David Silva pass and move around their opponents like some madly organised footballing carousel until those opponents are dizzy with confusion and tiredness. Then Spain strike.
Their potency is abetted this time around by Diego Costa, a swarthy siege-tower of a striker Brazilian by birth but representing Spain through residency. For his counterpart on the Dutch side, Robin Van Persie, 2014 may represent a final chance to win the World Cup. He came razor-close four years ago in South Africa, when the Netherlands abandoned the principled beauty of Total Football – upon which tiki-taka is based – and embraced the thug life to reach the final. The abiding memory of that game is not Iniesta’s extra-time winning goal for Spain – it’s Nigel de Jong planting his studs into Xaabi Alonso’s chest like the orange-belted kung-fu artist of an arcane videogame. The Dutch are unlikely to be as uncompromising this time around.
Chile have a definite Spanish influence to their team – not simply due to a shared mother tongue. Alexis Sánchez of Barcelona acts as the buzz to Gary Medel of Cardiff City’s rusty saw. Medel has a history of violence both on and off the pitch – playing for his country in the Under-20 World Cup semi-final, he was sent off and then tasered after the match following a violent confrontation with the referee. If Medel plays Michael Bay to Sánchez’s David Cronenberg, then the explosive Chileans have a chance.
Australia will act as the convenient, gold-and-green doorstep of the group. There’s little chance of either Spain or the Dutch tripping over a static side featuring the luminous talents of a venerable Tim Cahill and, um, Mile Jedinak of Crystal Palace. Australian football has seen better days – most notably the 2006 World Cup, when they should have reached the quarters. This time around, a slight stomach upset of a result is all they can hope to achieve.
Prediction: 1) Netherlands 2) Spain 3) Chile 4) Australia
Extract from Tequila Sunset
Tequila Sunset is out on 1 November 2012 in the UK, in paperback, from Serpent's Tail.
El Paso and Ciudad Juárez sit across the Texas/Mexico border from each other. One gang claims territory in both: Los Aztecas. This single criminal organisation is responsible for most of the homicides committed in Juárez, and Felipe Morales is one of them. Recruited in prison, and now on the streets of El paso, "Flip" has no choice but to step further into that world, but he has a secret that threatens his life. A witness to murder and intimidation, he tries playing both the cops and the outlaws in a bid to escape. On the American side, El Paso detective Cristina Salas struggles to balance the needs of single motherhood with those of life in the city's anti-gang unit. When her path crosses with Flip, their relationship will spell the difference between a life behind bars for the young gang member, a grisly death, or freedom.
In the summer it was hot, in the winter it was cold and all year round the halls and cells of Coffield Unit were busy with the business of incarceration. This day it was not so bad, teetering between two extremes. The ceiling-mounted fans did not turn and the big heating units that blew and blew, but did little to chase away the chill, were silent. Flip lined up with the convicts, dressed in their white cotton uniforms, waiting for the COs to open the door and let them out onto the yard. Barred windows let in sunshine to compete with sallow fluorescents. It would be good to be outside. [private]When the door opened the COs counted them off. Already they had been counted before getting into line and they would be counted again when it was time to go back inside. Counting was a constant and if ever the numbers didn’t jibe everything stopped. They went out mixed, but as the cons distributed into the yard they broke into their component parts. White boys congregated by the weight pile, blacks by the half-court basketball blacktop and the Latinos by the handball court. Within each division were individual cliques, but the most important grouping was by race. The colors approached one another’s domains only when certain dictates had been observed. In this way the facilities could be shared without it coming to blows. Flip was not the youngest Latino on the yard. That honor went to Rafael Perez, eighteen years old, doing four for sexual assault on a child. He was shunned, and when anyone took notice of him it was bad news. The other Latinos didn’t even let him find a corner to hide in; he was forced to stand away from the walls in the no man’s land between handball and basketball courts, exposed to everyone. He seemed smaller now than when he came.
Today Flip stood with Javier who was doing thirty-five and Omar who wasn’t ever getting out. Both men were old enough to be his father. They kept close and they let no one touch him, not on the yard or on the inside, because he was one of them. Flip was an Azteca. They called each other Indians. Javier was tattooed from his navel to his collarbone and on his arms, too. The marks showed on his wrists where his cuffs pulled back. He had his initials over his left eyebrow. Many of his pieces he had done on himself. He did good work. Flip hadn’t ever gotten anything from Javier, though Javier offered more than once. None of Javier’s marks were a gang patch and he didn’t do gang patches. They were Aztecas, but no one could prove it. That’s how they all stayed out of Administrative Segregation, where gang members went and never surfaced again.
If anyone asked, they were all just good friends. Old-timers watched out for new fish and new fish did favors for the old-timers. There was nothing the COs could say about that. No Indian would give up another Indian. From time to time one of them would be picked off, sent to Ad Seg, but that was just bad luck. In all there were two hundred and fifty men out of four thousand in Coffield on the yard. They were watched on the ground and from the towers. Double rows of thirty-foot cyclone fencing and yards and yards of densely coiled razor wire stood between them and a tall concrete wall. There were flatlands beyond. It was two hundred yards from the wall to the first tree and the COs in the tower were excellent shots.
Enrique Garcia was one of the last out. He’d been in the hole for sixty days and now he was free of the belly chain and ankle cuffs. His size was intimidating though his waist was thick. The COs were careful watching him when he came on the yard because there was trouble before and there could be trouble again. In the time Flip had known him, Enrique spent more days in the hole than out. The sun reflected off his bald head. When he came close to the others he smiled from under a mustache that made him look like a bandito. He rapped knuckles with Javier and Omar and Rafael and César and all the other Aztecas. And Flip, too. His fingers were tattooed. Under his shirt he had ink of an Aztec warrior in full headdress and a bare-breasted maiden beside him. Flip had seen it once. A scorpion crawled up his neck. That one didn’t stand for anything.
“What’s the word?” Enrique asked.
“Nada, jefe,” Omar said. “It’s good to see you.”
“It’s good to be seen. Flip, ¿cómo estás?”
“I’m doing my time,” Flip said.
“Not much longer, right?”
“A week? So soon.” Enrique looked up at the sky and let the rays of the sun fall on his face. He breathed in the cool air like he was thirsty for it. Flip had never been in the hole, but he could understand. A group of convicts took over the handball court and broke out in pairs. They did not mix with the Aztecas because they were La Eme. There was longtime peace between their cliques because Enrique had brokered it. Flip stepped off the corner of the court to give them all the space they needed. Before long they were playing, the echoes of the ball bouncing around their corner of the yard.
“How’s that motherfucker Danbury?” Enrique asked.
“He got out of the infirmary, took protective custody,” Javier said. “Ain’t nobody seen him since.”
Enrique showed his teeth. “Teach those negros to talk shit. He shows his face again, it’ll be his ass. ¿Sabes lo que quiero decir?” Flip looked across the open ground to the basketball court where the blacks held together. They were watching Enrique and talking among themselves. There was no peace between the Aztecas and them. There could be no peace. They had Danbury to answer for and Danbury to avenge and there was no easy way to work that through. Flip was glad he would be out of it soon.
“Flip,” Enrique said and his put his hand on Flip’s shoulder. “The first thing I did when I got out, I made some calls for you. When you get home, you’re gonna be looked after. Everybody will know your name.”
“Gracias, jefe,” Flip said.
“It’s nothing. Blood don’t stop at the gates. José, he’s my boy, he’ll watch over you like I would. You got no worries.” The blacks weren’t looking their way anymore. Some of them shot hoops.
“No worries,” Flip said.
Enrique squeezed Flip’s shoulder, shook him gently. “No worries.”
“Number ten!” the CO called. Flip got out of his bunk. He had the top, Daniel the bottom. When Flip was gone, arrangements would change. Flip’s things were in a white cloth bag with a string tie.
“Time’s up,” Daniel said.
“Adiós,” Flip said. “See you on the outside.”
“Not if I see you first.”
They laughed. The CO stopped at the cell door. He was one of the new ones and Flip didn’t know his name. “Number ten, open up!” he yelled down the line and somewhere a buzzer went off. The CO put his key in the lock, turned and pulled. “Step out.” Outside the row of cells there was a yellow line painted on the concrete. Flip grabbed his bag and walked over the line, stood facing the wall while the cell was locked up again. When he felt the CO’s touch on his elbow, he turned and marched, the CO at his back. The convicts in their cells called out to him. See you, man. Hasta la vista. Good luck, hermano. Flip raised his hand to them until they came to the end of the line.
“One prisoner coming out,” the CO said.
Danny Mascorro worked the gate. He buzzed the lock and the CO used his key to get them through. Now they were in a dead zone between gates, Mascorro behind reinforced glass. They were under the eye of closed-circuit cameras. Flip nodded to Mascorro and Mascorro nodded back.
After the second gate they proceeded down a long hall with no windows. At the end was a steel door. A CO peered through a slot at them and there were more buzzers and more locks. They left Flip in a big cell with benches along three walls. He was in there for a long time, until finally another CO he didn’t recognize came to get him. The CO took him down a passageway to another, smaller cell adjoining a large room with desks and computers. Women in TDCJ uniforms were at work there, clicking away on keyboards, and they ignored him. Flip sat down and waited. There was a window in the room beyond his cell and through that window he could see a tree. He didn’t know if he was looking at something beyond the walls or if there was a garden spot just past the glass. In his imagination it was a yard with concrete benches and flower beds and a flagpole flying the American and Texas banners. Maybe there was a little plaque dedicating the space to somebody or the other. Quiet and peaceful. He was daydreaming when one of the women called his name.
“Huh?” he said.
“Let’s get you out of there.”
Flip waited until a CO could come and unlock the cell, and then the woman had him sit in a plastic chair by her desk. She was black and had extra long nails. Her hair was straightened and braided.
“I’m going to do your release processing,” the woman said.
“There are a lot of questions, but we’ll do them just as quick as we can so you can be on your way.”
“All right, let’s get started…”
The whole interview took an hour and a half. The woman gave him an envelope with bus fare and a few extra dollars besides. He had to sign his parole certificates. After that Flip had to go back into the cell again for another hour. He could see a clock from where he sat. It made time go more slowly, the sweep hand going round and round, and the minute hand edging forward. His palms itched and he wanted to be out of there, but everything in prison took time, even getting out. A CO brought him a bag and pushed it through the bars. When Flip opened it up, he saw the clothes he wore on the day he went inside. He hardly recognized them. No one looked as he changed out of his uniform. The clothes fit loosely on him because he was leaner now. He folded up the uniform and set it on the bench beside him. The CO did not come back to collect it. “Felipe? It’s time,” the woman said at last. “Kurt, could you take him? The van’s out there.”
The CO, Kurt, let Flip out of the cell and walked him out of the room. They passed through two short hallways and into a broad area with rows and rows of plastic chairs locked together, lots of fake wood paneling and a big counter. On one side there was a security station set up with a metal detector and a table for searching bags. Two women were going through the process right then. In the plastic chairs there were more women and a few men and a bunch of kids, from babies on up. On Flip’s side there was just a velour rope like the kind that closed off the line at a movie theater. Kurt unhooked it from the stanchion and let Flip through. They moved past the rows of plastic chairs into a relatively narrow foyer. When Kurt opened the door for Flip a blinding crash of sunlight rolled over him and it took a moment for his eyes to adjust. The sky was cloudless and pale blue and the sun was like an unblinking eye. On the yard there was some grass, but it was patchy and mostly trod away to dirt. Out here there were two squares of neat green bracketing a concrete walk. Here was the flagpole with the banners waving and here was a wrought iron fence that could keep in no one and an open gate. A tan van with the TDCJ logo stamped on the passenger door waited on the asphalt roundabout. The driver was an older man. He came around and hauled open the van’s cargo door. The windows had metal mesh on the inside. “Hop on in,” the driver said.
“Good luck,” Kurt said and he offered Flip his hand. They shook.
Flip climbed in the back of the van. There was more metal mesh between the seats and the front of the cabin. The cargo door locked from the outside.
“Next stop, Palestine,” the driver said.
“Where’s that?” Flip asked.
“You don’t know?”
“Doesn’t matter. You won’t be seeing much of it.”
The van carried Flip fifteen minutes through greened country until they reached a scattering of houses along the little highway. They passed a sign that said TENNESSEE COLONY, POP. 300. They passed a simple white church with a mobile home next to it. The letter board out front read: PASTOR ON VACATION. GOD ON DUTY!
They found a bigger road and even some traffic. Flip just watched the miles slip by. Palestine seemed to grow up right out of the countryside, a busy small town with broad streets and clean buildings. The driver navigated without pause. He had done this a thousand times before. “Bus station,” the driver said and they slowed to the curb. The building was compact and had a Greyhound-logo sign on the front, benches for people to wait out of the sun and a snack machine. The cargo door was pulled aside and Flip stepped out onto the sidewalk. The driver shut the van up behind him. “And that’s it. Get your ticket inside. You’re headed to El Paso?”
“I’ll be all right.”
The driver produced a little clipboard the size of an open hand.
“Just sign off. Here’s a pen.”
Flip put his signature to a green form and got a yellow receipt back. He crumpled it up and put it in his pocket.
“Stay out of trouble.”
The driver got into the van and pulled away. Flip stood on the curb with his bag and watched him go. When the van was out of sight, he went into the ticket office. No one looked at him strangely at all.[/private]