Excerpt from The Uncomfortable Dead
Ed.’s note: The authors write alternating chapters in the book, with Marcos leading off.
sometimes it takes more than 500 years
ANYTHING THAT TAKES MORE THAN SIX MONTHS IS EITHER A PREGNANCY OR NOT WORTH THE TROUBLE
That there’s what El Sup told me, and I just looked at him to see if he was joking or what. Cause the thing is, El Sup sometimes mixes things up and jokes with the city folk like he’s talking to us, or he jokes with us like he’s talking to the city folk. And then nobody much understands him, but he don’t really care a whole lot. He just laughs to himself.
But wasn’t that way this time. El Sup wasn’t joking. You could tell from the way he just stared at that pipe while he was trying to get it to catch. He was just staring at that pipe like he was expecting it to answer him instead of me.
He told me he was going to send me into the city; that I had to do a couple a things for the struggle and I had to hang around picking up city ways, and then I could do the job. That there was when I asked him how long I had to hang around picking up city ways and he told me six months. So I ask him if he thought six months was enough, and that’s when he said what he said.
El Sup said this after he spent some time talking to a certain Pepe Carvalho, who’d just got into La Realidad with a message from Don Manolo Vázquez Montalbán and asked to see El Sup. Well, that’s what I heard from Max, the guy who got the message first. Now me, I knew Don Manolo well. It was just a few days ago he’d come up to interview El Sup. He’d brought with him a bunch of sausages, which is some kinda meat, in his knapsack. Now, I didn’t rightly know what in hell sausages was, but when I rode out to meet him, I saw how the dogs was all around him going wild and I asked him if he had meat in that there bag and he said he had sausages, but “they’re for Insurgent Subcomandante Marcos,” that’s what he said. And right then I knew he really respected El Sup, cause that was the way he was called by city people who really respected him and liked him a lot. But like I was saying, that’s how I found out what sausages was, cause I asked if he had meat and he said he had sausages, so sausages must be a way they fix meat in the country where Don Manolo’s from.
Don Manolo don’t like to be called “Manolo,” but “Manuel.” That’s what he said when we was on the way to Headquarters. It took us awhile to get there. First, cause Don Manolo didn’t take to horses really well and he was awhile getting into the saddle. And second, cause the horse they got him was a little skittish and didn’t really take to being rode and all, so he kept making for the pasture instead of heading along the road. Since we spent some time getting the horse to go where we wanted him to go, Don Manolo and me got to talking and I think we even became friends. That’s how I found out he don’t like to be called Manolo, but me, you know, all you gotta do is tell me something is “no” for me to go “yes,” and I don’t do it outta being ornery or nothing, no sir, it’s just the way they made me, or that’s the way I am, you know, contrary: Contreras. That’s what El Sup calls me, “Elías Contreras,” but not cause that’s my name. “Elías” is my fighting name, and “Contreras,” well, that’s what El Sup named me cause he said I had to have a fighting last name too, and seeing as how I was so contrary, a last name like Contreras was just right for me.
Now, all of that happened some time before I went to Guadalajara to pick up a mail pouch in the public baths at La Mutualista and met the Chinese guy Fuang Chu. And it was also a long time before I ran into the Investigation Commission guy called Belascoarán over by the Monument to the Revolution, down in Mexico City. Now, I say Investigation Commission, but this Belascoarán feller says detective. In our Zapatista territories there ain’t no detectives, only Investigation Commissions. But this Belascoarán says that in Mexico City there ain’t no Investigation Commissions, only detectives. So I says to each his own. But like I was saying, all this was a lot after El Sup said what he said about the six months. And it was even later that he ran into Magdalena in Mexico City. Oh, that Magdalena honey! But I’ll tell you more about that later… or maybe I won’t, because some wounds just don’t heal even if you talk them out. On the contrary, the more you dress them up in words, the more they bleed.
Anyway, a long time before El Sup told me about the six months, I’d already investigated some things in the Zapatista autonomous rebel municipalities. You have to say cases, not things, this Belascoarán told me later, and the thing is, he kept riding me because according to him I talk very different, and whenever he felt like it he would go on correcting the way I talked. But me, instead of changing the way I talked, I just went right on… Contreras, you know? And it was from one of them cases that we got the name of this chapter in this here book, which, you’re gonna see, is very different.
But let me tell you a little about who I was. Yeah, was, cause I’m deceased now. I was in the militia when we went up in arms back in 1994 and I fought with the troops of the First Zapatista Infantry Regiment, under the command of Sup Pedro, when we took Las Margaritas. Hell, I’d be sixty-one now, but I ain’t, cause I’m dead, which means I’m deceased. I first met Sup Marcos back in 1992, when we voted to go to war. Then later I ran into him in 1994 and we were together when the federal troops chased us out in February of 1995. I was with him and Major Moses when they came at us with war tanks and helicopters and special forces and all, and yeah, it was tough, but as you can see, they didn’t get us. We hightailed it, as they say… although we spent a bunch of days hearing the thwack-thwack-thwack of them helicopter blades.
Okay, that’s enough talking. All I wanted to do was introduce myself. I am Elías Contreras and I’m Investigation Commission. But I didn’t used to be Investigation Commission; before I was just a supporter of the Zapatista National Liberation Army over here in Chiapas, which is in our country that’s called Mexico. You wanna know where that is? Well, you can take a look at a map and you’ll find it right over by the…
EZLN General Headquarters
High up on the trunk of a bayalte tree, a lonely toucan polishing his beak. Below, Lieutenant Hilario is checking to see if the horses have finished off the little corn patch, and Insurgent Martina is reviewing the list of state capitals. The guard detail is sitting in front of the little shack cleaning their weapons. On one side, tacked to a pole, the old black flag with the five-pointed star and the letters, EZLN. The star and the letters are a faded red. El Sup steps out of the door. The guards spring to attention.
“Call Lieutenant Colonel José,” says El Sup. José arrives. El Sup hands him some papers. “This just came in.”
After reading the papers, the lieutenant colonel asks, “What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know,” answers El Sup, both of them standing there thinking, as the toucan takes off in a flurry of flapping wings that draws their attention.
After a moment, they look at each other and say in a single voice: “Elías.”
The last rays of sunlight are just fading away when the silhouetted figure of the lieutenant appears riding over the hilltop. He skirts the town, avoiding mud holes and stray glances, until he gets to where Adolfo has his post.
“He’s in a meeting with the municipal authorities.”
The lieutenant goes in to see him.
The major takes the papers and reads.
“Get hold of Elías,” the lieutenant says, “and tell him to drop around he-knows-where to have a chat with the old man, tomorrow, if he can make it; if not, when he gets a chance. That’s all.”
Grabbing the radio, the major barks, “Lama gama. If you copy, tell the big eye to buy his telescope tomorrow, or whenever he can.”
High up on a hill, the operator receives the message and relays, “Lovebird, Lovebird, if you copy, there’s a forty for Elías, and Cloud says he’s to go tomorrow.”
In the town, the man in charge of the post relays to the CO, “They want you to get Elías and have him go to La Realidad tomorrow.”
The sun has long since taken cover behind the rolling hills when Elías shows up at the door of his shack, a bundle of pumpkins hanging from his head sling. In one hand he holds his chimba, and in the other…
Yeah, El Sup didn’t actually show me the paper, but he told me what it was all about. There was a disappearance. The message said that one of the women had disappeared and that El Sup should write up a paper blaming it on the bad government. Which is actually what El Sup is sposed to do, the problem being that the citizens, that is, the city folk, are already used to the Zapatistas telling them the truth, that is, that we don’t lie to them. So like I said, the problem is that if El Sup writes his communiqué accusing the government and then it turns out that the woman ain’t disappeared at all and the bad government didn’t harm her, what happens is our word begins to look weak, and what happens is people stop believing us. So then, my job was to investigate to see if she really was disappeared or what, and then I was to report to El Sup what it was that happened so he could decide what to do.
I asked El Sup how much time I had and he said I had to do it in three days. I didn’t ask why it was three days and not one, ten, or fifteen. That was for him to know. So I went to saddle up a mule, and that same afternoon I headed out for Entre Cerros, which is what they call the town where they had the disappearance of María—or the former María, cause what if she’s deceased?—who is/was the wife of the local Zapatista rep in that town.
Soon as I got to the town I talked to the rep, whose name is Genaro and who is or was the husband of the deceased María. Well, she ain’t deceased, not yet anyway. That’s what we had to find out. So Genaro told me that she went out for firewood and that later, well, she didn’t come back again. Didya look for her? Yes! Ya didn’t find her? No! He said how if he’d found her he wouldn’t’ve called Headquarters. That was three weeks ago. So why didn’t he call then? Cause there was still a chance she’d turn up. So, did he know which way she headed? No! Maybe she was taken by the Army or the paramilitaries and she was already deceased. Who was going to make his pozol and his tortillas? And who was going to take care of the kids?
So I says goodbye to Genaro, thinking how he was more worried about who was going to do his cooking than about the deceased, or not, María, and thinking that what he was remembering was not that he loved her or nothing like that, but all the work she did around the house and all. Then I went down to the stream where the women did the washing and I ran into cousin Eulogia. She was with Heriberto, my godson, and she was washing something. I decided to talk to her cause she was naturally real nosey, and she told me that just before she disappeared, the deceased María, who wasn’t really deceased yet, had quit going to the meetings of the Women for Dignity Cooperative just when they were fixing to name her to the bureau, and that she, Eulogia, had gone to see her, the alleged deceased, to ask why it was that she wasn’t going to the meetings, and that she, María, answered, “Who’s gonna make me?” and didn’t say no more cause just then Genaro showed up and María shut up and just went on grinding corn. I asked if María could have got lost in the woods, and Eulogia went, “How’s she gonna get lost when she knows every path and every trail?”
“So she didn’t get lost,” I says.
“No!” she says.
“So then what?” I says.
“You ask me, I think it was that demon with the hat—El Sombrerón—who hauled her away,” she says.
“Shit, cousin, you’re old enough to not be believing those stories about El Sombrerón.”
“All I know is that things happen, cousin, like what happened to Ruperto’s wife,” Eulogia insisted.
“Ah, c’mon, cousin, that wasn’t no Sombrerón. Don’t you remember how they finally found her all cuddled up naked behind the fireplace?”
“That may be,” Eulogia said, “but there’s a whole lot of other Sombrerón stories I figure are true enough.”
Well, right then I didn’t have time to explain to cousin Eulogia how those stories about El Sombrerón were just that, stories, so I headed for the trail that lead up to where they go for firewood. I was just about leaving the town when I heard a voice behind me: “Is that Elías Contreras?”
And I turned to see who it was, and it was Comandante Tacho, who was just getting into town—to talk up the citizens, I think.
“So how’re you, Tacho?” I said.
I wanted to hang around and chat with him about neoliberalism and globalization and all, but I remembered I only had three days to clear up the matter of the deceased María, so I bid him goodbye.
“I’ll be moving along now,” I said.
“Oh, so you’re on a mission?”
“That’s about it,” I said.
“Go with God then, Don Elías” he said.
“And you, Don Tacho,” I added and hit the trail.
As I was getting to the sunflower fields it started raining. I wasn’t carrying nothing to keep the rain off, so I started hollering and cussing, which don’t keep you dry, but it does warm you up a bit. I followed the firewood trail every which way and back again, cause the thing spreads out like the branches of a tree, but no matter how far I went up any one of them branches, I didn’t find nothing to tell me what could have happened to the alleged deceased María. I went over by the stream and had my pozol sitting on a rock. Night falls hard and fast in the woods and although there was a big old moon, I had to use a light to get back to the trail. So now what? I asked myself, just staring like a dummy at the branches cut by a machete… machete…
Machete! That’s it! There was no sign of the machete the alleged deceased María had used to cut firewood. And then I remembered that back at Genaro’s I’d seen a machete by one of the piles of firewood stacked up against the side of the shack. There was a goodly amount of wood there, so why would the right now not-so-deceased María have gone out to chop more, seeing as how she already had plenty? And that was when I got to thinking that María had not been disappeared, but had disappeared herself. What I mean is that, like folks around here say, she just up and left.
So I got myself on the road and headed back to Entre Cerros. After a cup of coffee at cousin Eulogia’s, I made myself as comfortable as I could on the grain bin to get some sleep. It turns out I didn’t get much sleep, what with the drumming of the rain and the worrying about finding María. Now, when I don’t sleep I get to thinking too much. Mara always scolds me for thinking too much, and I tell her there’s no way to stop, that that’s how they made me. So I went on thinking about what if María ain’t deceased, what if she wasn’t disappeared, what if she disappeared herself, and where could she have got to, and if she disappeared herself it musta been cause she didn’t want to be appeared, so then she musta gone where nobody could appear her.
In the morning it was still raining, so I borrowed a nylon poncho from cousin Humberto. I left him the loaded mule and went to the local government at La Realidad.
Soon as I got there, I asked to talk to the head of the Good Governance Board. They took me first to the Vigilance Commission. Míster and Brusli were there. I told them I was on the Investigation Commission and that I needed to talk to the Good Governance Board. Then they sent me in. I asked the Board if they had information about the women’s collectives in the towns. They handed me some lists. It took awhile, and I couldn’t find anything I wanted in the lists, so I gave them back.
“So what is it you’re looking for?” they asked.
“I don’t know,” I answered, cause it was the pure and simple truth. I didn’t know what I was looking for, but if I found it, I’d know.
“Looks like you’re all mixed up,” the Board guys said. “That’s about right,” I said.
“So you couldn’t find what you were looking for?” they went on asking.
“That’s right,” I said.
“Well, that list has all the women’s collectives,” one of the Board guys told me.
“Yeah, all of them except a brand new one that’s just getting started,” another one added.
“Oh yeah, that one, but it’s in a new region and it barely hasn’t even started up yet. They don’t even have an autonomous municipality, but the women are organizing their collective,” the first one said.
“That’s the way it is,” the only female Board member said, “the women are the first to get organized, and if the fight is taking too long it’s because of the men; their minds are too narrow.” None of the men said anything.
I got the feeling that I was about to find what I didn’t know I was looking for, so I asked, “Where is that collective that’s just getting started?”
“It’s over in the Ceiba region, in the town of Tres Cruces, along the Comitán road,” the woman said.
Brusli loaned me his mare and I set out for Tres Cruces. Along the way it grew dark and the mare kept getting spooked at every shadow, so I put her up in a town along the way, but seeing as how the second day was running out, I walked it—fact of the matter is, I think I practically ran the rest of the way.
I got to Tres Cruces when the moon was halfway across the sky. I went to see the local headman and introduced myself. He went off for a while, I imagine to radio in and see if I was who I said I was, cause he came back real happy and even invited me to dinner. We had coffee and guineo bananas. When we got through I asked him how the work was going and he said it was fine, that the collective sometimes lost a bit of push, but that with a little political talking-to they perked right up again.
“The one that’s getting along just fine is the women’s collective, and it’s that April who’s providing the spark,” the headman said.
“Who’s this guy April?” I asked.
“Not a guy, but a gal,” he answered.
I took another sip of coffee and waited on him. Soon the headman continued.
“April’s a woman who came in about three weeks ago, said she was Women’s Commission. We put her up at Doña Lucha’s, seeing as how she’s alone after Aram went deceased. So that’s where the April woman is living and I think she’s got a good head on her, cause the other women in town really like her. Every week she comes in for the political work and stuff, and I think they already asked to have their collective registered with the Good Governance Board.
So I said goodbye to the headman and told him I was going to spend the night over at the church. Making believe it was just out of curiosity, I asked him where that Doña Lucha lived. He said it was on the outskirts of town facing the hill. So I left him, but instead of going to the church, I went right on. There was only one shack on the side of town by the hill, so I figgered that must be Doña Lucha’s place. I stood around awhile waiting, but not for long. The door opened up and the first thing I saw was a shadow that by the light of the moon became a woman.
“Good evening to you, María,” I said, stepping out from behind the water trough.
She sorta froze up a second, but then she bent over, picked up a rock, and looked me in the eye.
“Who says my name’s María? My name’s April.”
I just stood there not saying a word, and thinking how any other woman would’ve gotten spooked and would’ve screamed or run away or both. This here one was ready to face down a stranger, though. A woman like that don’t shut up when things aren’t right. She don’t stay with a man who treats her bad, either.
I kept my eyes glued to the hand with the rock and talked to her real slow: “My name is Elías; I’m Investigation Commission and I’m looking to find out what happened to a woman called María who disappeared from the town of Entre Cerros, and the thing is, her husband is real worried.”
Still holding onto the rock, she asked, “Am I supposed to know this town Entre Cerros or this María or her husband Genaro—”
Right there I butted in, “Now, I didn’t say her husband’s name was Genaro.”
Well, I’m imagining she went pale, but I could barely make out her face so it was hard to tell if she actually changed color or not. Then, after a long silence, she picked up a stick with her free hand and said real slow, “Nobody’s taking me where I don’t want to go.”
“Not my job to take anybody anywhere, ma’am, not by hook and not by crook. I’m just investigating.” I turned around to take my leave but had hardly moved when I heard her voice.
“You like to come in and have something to eat? Doña Lucha made tamales.”
After dinner, as María-April or maybe April-María told me her story, Doña Lucha offered me…
“El Sup is right there waiting on you,” said the insurgent combatant standing guard outside the command post, and sure enough, there was El Sup by the hitching post, smoking his pipe. He gimme a hug, offered me some coffee, and we sat down on a log. Lieutenant Colonel José was there as well. I told them the whole story. Cause the thing is, this María, who is actually April, her husband, who’s called Genaro, mistreated her a lot, didn’t let her participate, and was very jealous. And when Genaro, her husband, found out that they were going to name her to the Board of the Women’s Collective, well, he even beat her. Then she took it up with the town assembly but they couldn’t come to any decision, and things went on the way they were. Now, her children are all grown and all and don’t really depend on her, and the Revolutionary Law on Women says she has the right to progress. And with every word she said, Doña Lucha kept nodding her head like saying she agreed, and she kept clenching her fists like she was real mad. And so April, who is María, got tired of being treated like a dog, but before disappearing herself she left a good stack of firewood for Genaro so he would never think she left cause she was lazy. She said that she had disappeared herself cause she couldn’t take it no more. That the Revolutionary Law on Women says that she has a right to choose the man she wants to have—or if she wants to have one at all. That she left for Tres Cruces because she had already met Doña Lucha at a women’s meeting and she knew she would back her up. That she knew it was wrong to have lied about being Women’s Commission and all, but that’s the only thing she could think of to get them to let her into town. That she changed her name and called herself April cause that was the month of women who fight. Now, I didn’t mention that the month of women who fight is not April, but March, cause they were pretty mad right there and it might be better for somebody else to explain later on when they were a bit more settled down. And that April accepted that she should be punished for lying about being Women’s Commission, but that she was not going back to be mistreated again, that she was a Zapatista and she was acting like one.
El Sup and the lieutenant colonel listened in silence, El Sup only refilling and lighting his pipe now and again.
When I finished reporting, he said, “Well, that’s a surprise. I met that Genaro compa once at a meeting of headmen and he spoke very well, he sounded very Zapatista.”
And I said, “Hey, Sup, you ever heard of anyone who couldn’t be a Zapatista for a little while?” El Sup moved his head like he was doing some thinking.
“So, how long does it take to become a Zapatista?” he asked as he was helping me saddle up the mule. “Sometimes it takes more than 500 years,” I said and hurried up to get going, cause my town is actually a ways off.
And the sun was hurrying along like there was something it was…
The sky bit off chunks of the darkness billowing among the treetops. Distracted by a flying cloud, El Sup chewed on his cold pipe stem.
“There’s still a whole lot missing on the question of women,” the lieutenant colonel said.
“Yeah, missing,” said El Sup, putting the case documents into a thick folder that read, Elías: Investigation Commission.
Someone, very far away, received a sealed envelope on which the sender had written:
From the mountains of Southeast Mexico,
Insurgent Subcomandante Marcos
leaving an imprint
Were there more antennas or fewer? There were many more, he told himself. Many more television antennas. Many more than when? More than before, of course. And he let that before just linger. With every passing day, there were more befores in his conversations and in the thoughts that flitted through his mind; he was turning into a pre-retirement adult. But the fact was, he had that antenna thing nailed right. There were a whole lot more antennas than before, and they were part of the jungle canopy. The jungle of television antennas of Mexico City. The jungle of antennas and lampposts and buttresses that wove in with the trees, stretched over the rooftops, hung off lines, climbed up broomsticks: glorious, arrogant. The jungle of Mexico City, along with its mountains, the polluted Ajusco hills.
The afternoon was fading away; Belascoarán lit his final cigarette and gave himself the seven minutes it would last before leaving his perch. Over the last few months, he had begun to prefer seeing Mexico City from above. From the highest roofs and bridges he could find. It was less harmful that way, more like a city, just a single solid thing as far as the eye could see. He liked it and still likes it.
When he was about five and a half minutes into his cigarette, his office mate, Carlos Vargas the plumber, came whistling through the metal door that led to the roof. He was whistling that old Glen Miller piece that had become so famous at sweet-sixteen parties in Mexico City during the ’60s. He was whistling in tune and with a great deal of precision to boot.
“You know, boss, I’ve got half a notion that these disappearances of yours up here on the roof might mean you’ve begun smoking grass on the sly. You’ve gone pothead, you’re getting high and flying low.”
“You’re wrong and I’m going to show you,” Belascoarán said, offering him the chewed-up butt of his filtered Delicado.
Carlos shook his head. “There’s a progressive official looking for you.”
“And what is a progressive official?”
“Same as the others, only they’re not on the take, and this one’s got a chocolate stain on his tie and a crippled dog.”
Héctor Belascoarán Shayne, independent detective, accustomed to absurd enigmas because he lived in the most marvelously absurd city in the world, climbed down the seven stories asking himself what the hell a “crippled dog” might mean in upholsterer’s crypto-language, only to find out that “crippled dog” meant a goddamn dog with a splint on one of its front legs, a timid face, and ears hanging to the ground. The animal was resting serene and sad at the feet of this progressive official. Carlos paid them no mind and was already back in his own corner of the office stuffing a pink-velvet easy chair.
Belascoarán dropped into his seat and the wheels carried him elegantly, until he hit the wall. He stared at the progressive official and raised his eyebrows, or rather his eyebrow—ever since he had lost one of his eyes, he found it difficult to move the other eyebrow.
“Are you a leftist?” the official asked, and God only knows why, but Belascoarán did not find that icebreaker at all strange in these times when the nuns of the Inquisition were flying back on their broomsticks, conjured up by the administration of one Mr. Fox, who wasn’t foxy at all.
He took a deep breath. “My brother says I’m a leftist, but a natural one, which means unawares,” Héctor said, smiling. “And that means I’m a leftist but I never read Marx when I was sixteen and I never went to demonstrations to speak of and I don’t have a poster of Che Guevara in my house. So, well, yes, I’m a leftist.”
The explanation appeared to satisfy the official. “Can you guarantee that this conversation will remain confidential?”
“Well, if God knows it, why shouldn’t the world?” answered Héctor, who hadn’t guaranteed anything for a long time.
“Are you a believer?” the progressive asked, a bit taken aback.
“There’s a friend of mine says he quit being Catholic for two reasons: one, because he thought that with so many poor people the Vatican treasures were a kick in humanity’s balls; and two, because they don’t let you smoke in church. And I imagine that goes for all religions. And I agree—the very idea of God annoys the shit out of me,” Héctor wound up very seriously.
Taking advantage of the moment of silence, Héctor checked out the progressive official and found that, as opposed to what Carlos had said, the guy had no tie, although he did have a stain on his yellow shirt, a shaggy beard, and the glasses of the terminally short-sighted. He was tall, very tall, and when he got excited he shook his head sideways in a perpetual no. He looked like an honest man, the kind his mother used to call “a good person,” referring always to workers, plumbers, milkmen, gardeners, and lottery hawkers. If memory didn’t fail him, his mother had never said that any bourgeois, grand or petit, was “a good person.” She must have had her reasons.
“There’s a dead guy talking to me,” the man said, breaking in on Héctor’s mental evaluation of him and his past.
Héctor opted for silence. Just a couple of months before, he had gone to a video club and rented a series created by Alec Guinness based on a novel by le Carré, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, produced by the BBC, and for six continuous hours he had watched in fascination as Smiley-Guinness used the most effective interrogation technique in the world: putting on a stupid face (if the guy weren’t British, Héctor would say he was the biggest jerk he’d ever seen) and staring at people languidly, not too interested, like he was doing them a favor, and people would just talk and talk to him, and once in a while, a long while, he would drop a question, as if not really caring much, just to make conversation.
And the method worked.
“For about a week now I’ve been hearing messages on my answering machine from a buddy of mine, only this buddy died in 1969. He was murdered. And now he’s talking to me, leaving me messages. He tells me stories. But I don’t rightly know what it is he wants from me. And I think he’s calling when he knows I’m not home so he can just leave a recording. Maybe it’s a joke, but if it is, it’s a hell of a joke.”
Héctor kept up his Alec Guinness face.
“My name’s Héctor,” the man said.
“So’s mine,” Belascoarán replied, kind of apologizing.
“How about the dead guy?”
“His name’s Jesús María Alvarado, and he was really something.”
Héctor went back into silent mode.
“So, how much do you charge?”
“Not much,” Belascoarán said.
That appeared to quiet the man down… the dog too.
“Here’s the tape. You can listen to the whole thing in five minutes. You decide and we’ll talk later.”
“I don’t have an answering machine in this office. If you can lend the tape to me, tomorrow we can—”
“No! Not tomorrow. In a while. Take my address,” Monteverde said, handing over a piece of paper. “And here are some notes I prepared about how I met the dead man. I’ll be at home… I don’t sleep.”
“I don’t either,” Héctor said.
And he watched as same-name Monteverde stood up and left the office, followed by his limping dog.
“That’s one hell of a story!” said Carlos Vargas with a mouthful of tacks, shaking his hammer over the pink easy chair.
“The phrase that comes to mind is the one about reality getting extremely strange,” Belascoarán answered.
Hours later, sitting at home, Héctor listened to the voice of the dead man coming from the tape.
“Hello. I am Jesús María Alvarado. I’ll call you back, buddy.”
The voice did not sound familiar; it was gravelly and didn’t reveal any anxiety, urgency… nothing. Just a toneless voice offering a name. It was not cavernous or put through special effects; it wasn’t intended to sound like a voice from the grave. What’s a voice from the grave supposed to sound like? This talking to dead people…
Yet Jesús María Alvarado was indeed dead, although not in 1969 like the progressive official Monteverde said, but in ’71. So it was prehistoric, thirty-four years ago. He had been murdered as he left prison. A bullet in the back of the head for the first political prisoner to be freed after the 1968 movement. Execution-style… and no official explanations.
Monteverde and Alvarado had met at a school where they both taught literature. They were just nodding acquaintances. A couple of coffees together, a couple of faculty meetings. The 1968 assemblies, the founding of the coalition of teachers in support of the student movement. Monteverde was a little absent-minded, lovesick, a bit timid… the son of an undertaker who had made his fortune on the luxury of death, something that Héctor Monteverde (according to his meticulously drafted notes) thought was not only immoral, but thoroughly shameful and reprehensible in the year of the movement. World literature was the antidote to the funeral parlors. Alvarado was the child of peasants who had come to literature through some incomprehensible conception of patriotism, and by the sheer force of rote repetition of “Suave Patria” and the memorization of verses by Díaz Mirón, Gutiérrez Nájera, and Sor Juana, for recitation to the town people. Forever poverty stricken, he couldn’t even afford to have his clothes washed at the end of each month, his tab at the corner store was overflowing, and he was filled with anger.
Apparently, during those magical and terrible years, Héctor Monteverde had followed the life of Alvarado from a distance, up until the man was murdered.
Héctor figured that he had to think the matter through calmly; he put aside the answering machine and the peach juice he had been drinking, and climbed back up to the roof with a packet of letters he had found in his mailbox. With infinite patience he set out to make paper airplanes and place them in a row along the parapet around the roof. Down on the street, the new day’s noise was just getting started in Condesa, the bikers, the teenagers having fun.
There was the slightest of breezes, and every once in a while it managed to blow one of the paper planes off the parapet, sending it into marvelous acrobatics before crashing to the ground. But very rarely did one succeed in floating away on the updraft. When the planes were all gone, he returned to his room. He had left all the lights on, the best antidote to loneliness, turning the damn house into a Christmas tree. He rewound the answering-machine tape. What he heard was what he had heard, and the voice said again, “Hello. I am Jesús María Alvarado. I’ll call you back, buddy.”
Another Jesús María Alvarado, the son of Jesús María Alvarado, the ghost of Jesús María Alvarado, an alter ego of Jesús María Alvarado with the same name, some table-dancer trying to attract attention, the police trying to drive Monteverde nuts for reasons known only to themselves, he summarized.
The second call was even better:
Listen, man, this is Jesús María Alvarado. I hope you’ve got a long tape, cause I have to tell you what happened to me. It’s a really rat-shit story, crazy. There I was in Juárez, in a bar, and since all the tables were taken I just stood around drinking my beer and watching the goddamn TV. The noise was a pisser and I couldn’t hear a thing, but there was bin Laden, with his stony expression, in one of those communiqués he keeps sending out over the TV. This guy’s a real pain in my balls, so I wasn’t listening much, but then a couple of guys behind me started hollering something like, “Das Juancho, das freekin Juancho!” So I turn around to see what was up with this freekin Juancho and there were these two half-drunk muscle-bound studs going on with their mantra: “Das goddam Juancho, Juancho!” pointing at the TV. I flipped around to make sure I wasn’t the one who was nuts, as usual, but it was still bin Laden, all elegant with a field rifle in his hand and the rag around his head and that dopey face of his. So I flipped around again to talk to the Juancho fan club. “What’s with this fuckin Juancho?” I says, and them, half slurring because of the booze, they tell me that there on the TV was none other than their buddy Juancho, and just lookit how the prick had done himself up. And I kinda found out that Juancho ran with these guys, he had been a taco vendor in Juárez and got tired of his crappy life about three years ago and wetbacked it over to open a butcher shop in Burbank, California. Me, I couldn’t make heads or tails of the whole thing, so I turn to the TV again and, sure enough, the sonovabitch was still there, so I went to ask the two drunks what else they knew about Juancho, and were they sure it was him, and when had he grown that shitty beard, but the guys had disappeared, gone, nada. I searched the bar and the sidewalk and all, but there was no sign of them. And I says to myself, Now ain’t that a pisser. Bin Laden’s alter ego is a taco vendor from Juárez. But then I started getting it all together and I says, Alvarado, what do you know about Burbank? And the thing is, I do know something about Burbank. It’s the skin-flick capital of the United States, a shit town near Los Angeles, triple-X companies and motels… Fuck, fuck, film, film, long live savage capitalism! And I put two and two together, and I ask myself, like, what if it was the Bushes who’ve been making the bin Laden communiqués, those messages from hell, in a porno studio in Burbank, California, where they even have all the desert you might want? What if they concocted the whole thing? What if it’s all a dream factory starring a Mexican taco vendor by the name of Juancho? But to tell the truth, even I couldn’t believe that crock, and I kept telling myself, You can’t be serious… But it does make a cool story, doesn’t it?”
Héctor turned off the machine. He went into the bathroom, looked in the mirror, and splashed cold water on his face. Like a lot of people who live alone, he was in the habit of talking to his mirror persona, but now he couldn’t think of anything to tell himself. He thought it over again and broke out into roaring laughter. Kafka swimming in his briefs in Xochimilco. Bin Laden played by Juancho in Burbank. And, of course, when he wasn’t doing communiqués, like Alvarado said, Juancho spent his free time fucking on film and getting paid for it. A free version of A Thousand and One Nights, as told in a taco emporium in Juárez: crazy but funny, the dumbest prick on the border.
The third tape started as always—“This is Jesús María Alvarado”—like he was trying over and over again to establish that he had come back from the valley of the shadow of death. After the name, there was a pause and a cryptic comment, “Maybe I shouldn’t have come back,” and then a long silence and a click that put an end to the call.
There was a fourth call that started off with the usual, ”This is Jesús María Alvarado,” then without a word of explanation went into some verses:
Where I will only be
a memory of a stone buried under briar
over which the wind flees its sleepless night.
And that was all. The poem sounded familiar, but Héctor couldn’t remember where or when he had heard it.
The progressive Monteverde lived in the Roma Sur neighborhood about twelve blocks from his home, so Héctor decided to take a walk, strolling along the promenade on Alfonso Reyes Avenue, which was better when it was Juanacatlán and lined with unionized whores or those hoping to join. He stopped at one of the taco joints to have a couple of cheese arracheras with lots of green salsa, then went on his way, smiling to strangers, every once in a while saying good evening just to see how the well-mannered Mexicans of the capital would recover their basic manners and reply.
The character seemed to live alone. Alone except for the dog with the splint, which, just as Belascoarán passed through the doorway, came over and licked his hand, either to identify him or simply to express solidarity between two cripples. There was no sign of children in the house, no pictures, but the walls were covered with reproductions of paintings of mountains and volcanoes, from a Velasco to Atl’s Paricutin, and rather attractive photographs of Everest in the style of National Geographic.
Monteverde was wearing the same chocolate-stained shirt from a few hours earlier. Héctor asked to use the bathroom, which was pristine, spotless. In his free time, Monteverde must be a detergent and Windex freak. A touch of incongruent humor among such hygienic fundamentalism moved him: On one of the walls there was a poster that read, Constipation Promotes Reading. Héctor decided he had to get one of those for his own home. The idea wasn’t new and he wasn’t constipated, but it was another good excuse to read in the john.
The floor in the hallway was filled with books for lack of bookshelves. Monteverde had arranged them on their sides so that all you had to do was bend over slightly to pick one up. Héctor recognized many of his own favorites: Remarque, Fast, Haefs, Ross Thomas, Neruda, Hemingway, Cortázar. They were all there.
“So tell me it ain’t strange, man.”
He didn’t answer, but he figured he would have to give the Alec Guinness method a rest. It was time for questions. He dropped into a rat-gray rocker, and before Monteverde could do likewise, he blurted out, “Did you recognize the voice?”
“No, but you can’t tell. It’s been so many years.”
“Were you guys friends? Friends enough that if he were alive he would—”
“I went to his funeral. He’s dead. I saw him lying there dead in his coffin, with a patch that you could see sticking out from the back of his head where they had shot him,” Monteverde interrupted.
“Were you good friends?”
“Just friends. He was always raring to go about everything. I was more timid. But there we were, in the movement, teaching literature in the preps, and we had a sort of a girlfriend, him first, then me, and we only ate street food, the cheapest we could find.”
The bit about teaching literature in the preps reminded Belascoarán of the poem, which he began to recite:
Where I will only be
a memory of a stone buried under briar
over which the wind flees its sleepless night.
“Where forgetfulness may dwell/in the vast dawnless gardens/where I will be…” Monteverde added.
“Of course, the Cernuda poem, I thought it sounded familiar, but I couldn’t…” Belascoarán paused, slapping his hands together to applaud his own memory.
“A marvelous poem,” Monteverde said, and resumed:
Where sorrow and fortune will be only words,
a native sky and land enveloping a memory;
where I will finally be free without even knowing it,
dissolved in a mist, an absence,
an absence soft as the flesh of a child.
“There, far away; where forgetfulness may dwell,” they finished in unison.
Now that was a real poem, one of those that grabs you by the nuts and squeezes softly until the pain becomes an idea. That was one hell of a poet, the old Spaniard exiled in Mexico. Héctor lit a cigarette; he used the moment to organize his ideas, while the dog, who must have been nervous about secondhand smoke, limped to a safe distance.
“That one scared me more than the other messages; it was Jesús María’s favorite poem—he would recite it for his students every so often. I wound up doing the same because of him.”
Héctor lit up another with the butt of the prior; the dog didn’t protest.
“Why would Alvarado, Alvarado’s ghost, or someone trying to pass himself off as Alvarado, be sending you these messages? Who are you, Monteverde? What do you do for a living?”
“I work for the government in Mexico City. I’m a special investigator for the Department of Oversight. It’s kind of a delicate job, particularly these days, that’s why I freaked. Otherwise I would have laughed it off. You can’t imagine, recently things have become very murky…”
“What are you working on now?”
“I’m sorry, that’s confidential, and furthermore it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the dead guy’s calls. I sound like some half-baked Charlie Chan,” Monteverde concluded with a smile, “don’t I? But the fact is, it’s delicate, what with all the goddamn corruption they had during the PRI administrations and the shit those bastards left us.”
“And are you corrupt? Forgive me for asking, but since we don’t actually know each other…”
Monteverde squeezed out a sad smile. “You can only buy what’s up for sale. Me? I’m made of steel, friend, stainless steel, incorruptible, a bit of a jerk and very far to the left. I don’t insult our dead.”
The sad expression was becoming something else and there were a few sparks in his eyes. Even the dog seemed to respond and lifted his head.
“So, are you for sale?” he asked the detective.
“My friend, I don’t want to wake up one of these days with my mouth full of ants. Me, I bend but I don’t go down,” Belascoarán answered, tapping his knee where he had a steel spike implanted that set off every metal detector in every airport around the world. “Who have you told about this?”
“Only Tobías,” Monteverde said, pointing to the dog.
“And the bin Laden story, do you believe that?”
“No. But it’s a hell of a story. I’m just sorry I didn’t come up with it myself.”
Belascoarán returned to the Alec Guinness routine, but it didn’t work. Monteverde was off thinking about something far, far away.
“How about you, when did you become an insomniac?” the detective finally asked.
“When we lost the elections in ’88, the day the system crashed, the election fraud. For some reason I got the idea in my head that during the night they were going to come and kill us all… How about you?”
“It was a few months ago. One night the woman who sometimes comes over to sleep with me didn’t show up, but I waited all night for her, and now I don’t sleep,” the detective answered, a little embarrassed. His own explanation couldn’t stand up to Monteverde’s; his insomnia paled in comparison to the historic insomnia of the literature-teacher-turned-progressive-official. “Who gave you my number? Who suggested that you contact me?”
“We have a common acquaintance working in the office of Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas; his name’s Mario Marrufo Larrea. I told him I had some really weird things going on and he said you specialized in weird things.”
“Well, I ain’t the only one in Mexico.”
And they celebrated by downing a couple of Cokes, Belascoarán’s with no ice.
It’s already becoming a cliché, this notion of being tied to the city by an umbilical cord, trapped in a love-hate relationship. The sleepless Belascoarán was looking out his window on the neon night and reviewing his own words. He was feeling like the last of the Mohicans. He averred, confirmed: There is no hatred. Just an immense, infinite sensation of love for this ever-changing city that he lives in and that lives in him, that he dreams of and that dreams of him. A determination to love that goes beyond all the rage, possession, and sex, and dissolves into tenderness. It must be the demonstrations, the golden hue of the light at the Zócalo, the book stands, the meat tacos, the currents of deep solidarity, the friends at the gas station across the way who always say hello when he passes. It might be that marvelous winter moon. It might be.
Héctor sat in a rocker to smoke. He spent the night smoking and listening to the sounds of the street. For no apparent reason, the image of Héctor Monteverde’s limping dog came to mind. It was dawn when he fell asleep.
The Uncomfortable Dead is now available from Akashic Books (www.akashicbooks.com). Excerpt by permission of Akashic Books.
SUBCOMANDANTE MARCOS is the spokesperson for the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, a Mexican rebel movement.Paco Ignacio Taibo II
Taibo II is the author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction.