Book: Return to the Same City

Previous: Chapter Two
Next: Chapter Four

My scars have roots even in other bodies,
my wounds move in shame.
Roque Dalton
“And what did you tell her?” Héctor asked.
“What the hell was I going to tell her?” an indignant Gilberto Gómez Letras said.
“Well, I don’t know, something about common sense.”
“Shit, yes. I said didn’t it seem stupid to her to change the entire installation instead of just changing the knobs that said hot and cold.”
“Well, yes, and what did she say?”
“That ever since she was a little girl, she’d gotten used to the hot being on the right and the cold on the left, and that’s the way she wanted it. Note, stupid Héctor, the stupid dense people one has to deal with every day. At this point, I’d like to shoot myself like one of your lowlifes, those guys who rape worn-out women, those idiots who stick a .45 up their ass then fire. As a murderer and an annoyance, the old lady is tops.”
Gómez Letras considered the conversation over and concentrated on an eight-foot length of copper tubing that he was whipping around the office from side to side, skipping over desks and chairs.
Héctor had stolen two packets of sugar from a coffee shop and was trying to improve his Coke, pouring them in along with half a lime. As far as flavor went, the result of the experiment was open to discussion, but quite a nice frothy foam welled up. In the club across the street, they’d spent half the morning playing the same second-rate tropical record, the kind that pounds the rhythm and lacks a melody; he hadn’t been able to pick up much of the words except that they were talking about a mulatto woman with a green ribbon in her hair.
Gómez Letras was smiling as he worked the copper tube to the rhythm of the tropical piece. His bad mood seemed to have dissolved.
“Why are you laughing?”
“I was thinking that if we stick a .45 up that woman’s ass, she might not give a shit which side the hot water is on.”
“Better let your evil thoughts die there.”
“Did you see that they raised the price of soda?”
“It’s already common knowledge that in this city we all walk around with a .45 up our ass.”
“Hand me those tweezers.”
“I’m going to hand you a .45 so you can see what it feels like.”
“I feel better, but you must be exhausted by now…And speaking of that, how do you feel?”
“I don’t know, let me think about it,” Héctor said.
He walked to the window and took a long swig of his improved Coke.
“Bad, I think I feel bad.”
“Well, it’s about time to start feeling better, there’s not much action around here.”
“What do you know about Afghanistan?”
“Nothing, it’s a street in the El Rosario neighborhood, isn’t it? What’s going on over there?”
“The KGB is looking for Mexican plumbers.”
“The KGB is a water pump factory in León, Guanajuato, right?”
Now it was Héctor’s turn to smile. Gómez Letras looked at him, annoyed. He moved to counterattack.
“You call yourself the poor people’s detective, but you haven’t even been to the protests.”
“The students?”
“No shit.”
“Like the little rat in the story said…”
“What did he say?”
“I’ve been sick.”
***
“And whoever shits on the record player, pees on it, puts his feet on top of it, splashes water, or coughs up chewed corn, I’ll wring his neck and roast him,” Héctor said to JJ and OP, showing them the John Coltrane cover again, the one with “Stardust.” The ducks emitted a string of quack-quacks and disappeared into the kitchen wagging their tails.
Héctor turned on the record player, removed the fluff from the needle and took the Coltrane out of its slip; he took off his jacket and turned on every light in the house. It was a new habit developed over these last few months. He was seeking the sensation of being the center of a Christmas tree where the light warded off all fears. He set down the needle and turned up the volume on both speakers. Then he went into the bathroom and pissed peacefully. The two photographs Alicia had given him were pinned to the wall above the toilet. He had them there to get used to during the week prior to the man’s arrival in the Mexico City airport, prior to the encounter with Luke Estrella’s actual face. For now, just the photos: a light-skinned mulatto, slightly split jaw, round nose, dry eyes, broad forehead. The Hollywood Latin mustache, soft, uneven.
Héctor spun around to the mirror as he shook off and studied his own mustache—rough, chaotic, Pancho Villa style.
Now he began a history of mustaches and Héctor knew well that tomorrow would be a day of a long-distance runner in training, of reading a book by Lansford about Pancho Villa and the North Division (his latest spiritual guide), of going to Gate E of Benito Juárez Airport and choosing the column from behind which to observe, the store to buy a drink, the parking lots, the place to leave the car. What a joke…mustaches.
The thing was working, he said to himself. He went down the hall to the kitchen and left the revolver next to the .45 automatic. He stuck everything including the holster in the refrigerator. The thing was working. Well oiled: the ducks, “Stardust,” the lights; all the medicine against loneliness he’d been able to gather.
***
The doorbell rang. It was still night. Gray, black dawn was almost breaking. It was the buzzer on the downstairs door. Héctor tried to fix his pajama bottoms, which had almost fallen off during his nocturnal nightmares. He was drenched with sweat. Again, the sweats, the taste of dirt in his mouth, bitter dirt. Fucking again. He peered out the window, hobbling, because he’d stubbed his toes on the base of the sink. Carlos, his brother, wrapped in a black jacket, stood under the streetlight. Héctor felt the cold.
“Come down,” Carlos said.
“You come up.”
“No, come down and let’s go.”
“Where?”
“To the campus.”
Dawn broke decisively as they crossed San Antonio on Revolución, in the midst of a fog that Héctor charitably classified as natural, but that Carlos identified as definitely part of the industrial shit; the black cloud of smog that traveled north to south utilizing the viaduct of the Beltway and Revolución Avenue, pushed by malignant winds whose function was to disperse the pollution and provide cover for the ghost of James Dean who rode around on his motorcycle in those parts.
The mist made the profile of buildings and trees a hundred yards away look diffuse, phantasmal.
“Are you carrying a gun?”
“Two, you want one? They’re half frozen because I kept them in the fridge last night.”
Carlos laughed. He shook his head no. “No way, armed and I shoot myself…No, I asked so that you don’t even think about using them.”
“What? Do I look like the Lone Ranger? I don’t go around firing off shots,” Héctor said and then asked, “Why are we going?”
“I hear they’re trying to break up the CEU strike, the student strike.”
“Who?”
“The police, the right-wing groups, the university president’s dogs.”
Héctor stayed quiet. Yes, it had to be pollution, because his only healthy eye was watering. He should have felt honored by Carlos choosing him as his traveling companion. In other words, the best thing to do was shut up and smile. No asking if they weren’t a little old to go around defending a student strike that for fifteen days had been abusing a city which the earthquake, the economic crisis, and disappointment seemed to have exhausted, and that was now rising up again: trembling, adolescent, shouting, reborn.
Traffic cleared out on the access road to the university. Héctor felt one brief pang of nostalgia and two of fear. After all, it was his university. Or was it? It was as much his as the rest of the country’s; it wasn’t a housing development belonging to an authoritarian administration with the mentality of a supermarket owner. And anyway, it was as good a return to life as any other.
Carlos had remained silent. He drove the Volkswagen with a kind of professional cold dexterity, always looking ahead, both hands on the steering wheel.
“How long has it been since you’ve been to the university?” Héctor asked.
“About ten years. I think the last time was when I stopped by the Philosophy Film Club to see Fellini’s 8 1/2 again. Too much nostalgia at once. I didn’t like the movie as much as I had before. I left the university like a prisoner just released, hiding, so no ghost would recognize me.”
“And me not even that much,” Héctor said as he felt his hands starting to sweat. Damned biological, physical fear, stuck in his bones. Would it never disappear?
The first barricades were next to the gas station. A few barrels of oil were burning, making small black clouds. The stupid students these days were not ecologists. Some five thousand of them had gathered around that entrance to the campus. You couldn’t see any cops around. Carlos, a member of the old and wary left, of the generation that learned to distrust invisible cops, drove around the nearby streets a couple of times. A truck with riot police about ten blocks away, two patrol cars on Copilco, nothing out of the ordinary. They parked in front of the Technical Library and approached the action on foot. A bunch of guys were singing with a couple of guitars. It wasn’t the “We Will Triumph” of Quilapayún or a song from Atahualpa Yupanqui or “The Girl from Guatemala” by José Martí-Oscar Chávez; yet the nostalgia was there in the Beatles’ “Let It Be.” This generation, thought Héctor—looking around at the ponchos and the budding beards, the blue and gold sweaters, light jackets, skirts longer than ever—was like him: it had never found its moment of glory. Not yet, anyway, he said to himself. He walked over to one of the oil barrels to dry the sweat off his hands. He couldn’t shake the fear, but at least he would accompany the five thousand students with the best of brave appearances. It was the least he could do for them.
The guitarists and the chorus finished “Let It Be” and someone started singing a Benedetti poem. The police who were going to break up the strike never showed.
***
“Does life smile at you?” Héctor asked Gómez Letras a few hours later, while Gómez Letras toiled at installing a new bathtub in his house.
“Me, life fights me,” the plumber and officemate said indifferently.
“Do you object to philosophy?” Héctor asked, looking around and tearing because the cigarette smoke had gotten in his eye.
The plumber contemplated him carefully. He had his doubts, especially over these last few weeks, about the quality of the detective’s mental state. When he saw that the weeping was going no further and had to do with the puff of smoke, he calmed down but he didn’t feel obliged to answer.
“Do you believe in luck?” Héctor insisted, asking almost out of inertia, because he couldn’t think of anything better to do.
“I believe other people have luck.”
“Do you think women and men are equal?”
“It depends on how you arrange them.”
“Have you ever gotten laid by a Christian?”
“I think I was really drunk once and I screwed a Mormon. But I didn’t mean to, so it doesn’t count.”
“Do you already know who you’re going to vote for?”
“Shit yeah, Cárdenas.”
“But weren’t you an abstentionist?”
“That was before. Now, yes, we should screw the PRI.”
“Who’s we?”
“The Cárdenas people. Where have you been, boss?”
Héctor couldn’t think of any more questions, nor did he think it was worth the trouble to answer, and he went off smoking down the hall, leaving Gómez Letras to work on the bathtub. The afternoon light was waning.
“I’m leaving. Make yourself at home,” he yelled from the front door.
Gómez Letras peered out to watch him leave, still a little worried. Héctor almost tripped over the ducks.
“Stay in the shadows, boss, you’re acting pretty dopey.”
He hopped down the steps, thinking about the bathtub.
The bathtub was being installed for free, thanks to a bet. Héctor had wagered that the university team would score against Atlante and the plumber, momentarily weak, had allowed his populist whims to influence him. Now he was installing a bathtub, free of charge, in the detective’s house, even though it had cost him a little extra to buy the materials. Héctor wanted a bathtub. If the plumber was feeling nostalgic for the lower class and bet on the mangiest team in the first division of Mexican soccer, Héctor couldn’t give a shit. Since his earliest childhood, the scene of voluptuous Cleopatra soaking herself was fixed in his memory, and he dreamed shamefully of having gardenia salt baths. When death loomed very near, or the sensation of death came visiting, inhibitions were lost, fear of the ridiculous evaporated, the prudish barriers crumbled, and the silliest taboos managed to die, allowing the phantoms to peer out from under the bed. With gardenias, just like an Australian whore, he said to himself, smiling, mocking himself.
The afternoon light had vanished by the time he got down the stairs. Only neon and mercury lit his way to the taxi stand. It was only eight at night, but the street was surprisingly empty. Somewhere a record player replete with rancheras was howling at the moon like an urban coyote. It was a good night. Cold air you could almost taste. A wind from the south, from the eternal winter winds of El Ajusco, just enough to rouse the skin, briefly bristle the down, sensitizing the poorly shaved chin, clearing the color of the eyes (the eye). Héctor accelerated his pace, not straying outside the lit area, looking behind him every once in a while. He was less afraid now than other nights, but habits stick to the cerebral cortex of the brain, the rituals of fear repeat themselves and bring back terrors by doing so.
At Ínsurgentes Square, he went into the subway. The train had a few empty seats. He took a novel by Marc Behm out of his coat pocket and vanished inside it. He emerged from the pages of the book half a dozen stops later, at Isabel la Católica, and got off the orange train. He walked a dozen blocks to the Hotel Luna. Not many people on the streets. It was the Thursday before payday, people locked themselves in to share their economic woes with the television. It was cold.
He checked into the hotel under the name of Arturo Cane, travel agent, and they put him in Room 111. He took stock of the small bathroom, washed his hands, took off his coat, and fell onto the bed. He resumed his reading. Half an hour later he realized his eye hadn’t moved off the same line. What had he been thinking about? The revolver in the holster was making his ribs hurt a little, still he didn’t take it off; he closed his eyes and tried to convince himself he was sleeping. He managed.
The light woke him up gradually and this time he didn’t come out of a nightmare, just a gray cloud in which Chopin was playing. He remembered a particularly unpleasant flu from his childhood and the experiment of Chopin as a cure for the fever that his mother had devised. It hadn’t worked, but Chopin was incontrovertibly linked in his memory to a 104 degree temperature, muscle aches, and cold sweats.
He did not wake up wondering where he was. He was in a hotel room. He had done it again. As he hoisted himself out of bed, Héctor seriously considered the possibility of committing himself to a mental asylum, of buying a ticket to heaven with the family psychiatrist. What was this shit about sleeping in hotels, registering under false names? Who was the idiot inside his head toying with his fears?
He had read in a novel that a paranoid could be defined as a Mexico City citizen with an acute perception of reality and an abundance of common sense. It was a funny joke, but this was going a little far. Okay, fine, peeing during nightmares was good. Crying in the street upon seeing a beggar was even better: it was a healthier reaction than walking right by him pretending he didn’t exist. Packing two guns and a knife, fine, fucking fine, not a big deal, apart from the fact that he was carrying three pounds of excess equipment, looking over his shoulders even in the movies, hearing footsteps in the hallway, doubting the integrity of the milkman or the identity of the gas man, fine, perfect, very healthy. But sleeping in hotels under assumed names, calling a revolting aunt whom he hadn’t seen for twenty years to cry as he told her some tearful story just because she was the closest thing to a mother figure he could pull out of his memory, that was too much already. That was too much shit already. Who was ordering him to go into a hotel? When did he decide?
Héctor threw off the clothes he’d slept in. He made himself stand in front of the mirror, studied his naked body carefully, the tons of scars collected over his early years, the tremendous bags under his eyes, the grayish paleness, the fear in his healthy eye, the lamentable scar where his other eye should have been. He forced a smile, then another wider one.
For the next hour, Belascoarán Shayne, Mexican detective, tried out thousands of smiles in front of the mirror. Then he washed his face with cold water, put over his eye a black leather patch that matched his jacket and got dressed.
He would have to learn to live with himself.
***
The New York—Washington—Mexico City Pan Am flight had just landed. That gave him fifteen minutes while the passengers went through immigration and customs. The airport was strangely deserted. It wasn’t the time, maybe it was the day. Or maybe it was him, smelling like death and therefore repelling crowds. Or the city, which frightened tourists with those caved-in buildings from the earthquake that hid the bodies, and whose silhouettes surrounded by dust-filled air and by bare-chested, anonymous heroes had danced on the TV screens of a hundred thousand other cities, jerking brotherly tears here and there. But brotherly tears don’t do much for tourism, and the memory is short, Héctor said to himself. He quickly looked for one of the little shops and got himself a Coke in an aluminum can, the kind of can that after drinking you can squash, and can transport the actor of the deed to the paradise of Hollywood stuntmen. He looked at a few boys who were porters playing hopscotch on the polished, shiny floor.
The electronic screen fascinated him for a couple of minutes. He was missing out on a lot of places, there were thousands of trips to take. And thousands of returns to the city of miracles, the city of horrors. Calling Mexico City “the monster” had become very vogue, but the nickname hid the better definition. He preferred to speak of his city as the cave of lies, the cavern of cannibals, the city of prostitutes on bicycles or in the black car of a cabinet minister, the cemetery of talking TVs, the city of men looking over their shoulders at their pursuers, the village occupied by label counterfeiters, the paradise of press conferences, the collapsed city, trembling, lovingly in ruins, its debris rummaged through the moles of God.
In his decalogue on mystery novels, Chandler forgot to prohibit detectives from getting metaphysical, Héctor Belascoarán Shayne—gun-carrying argonaut of Mexico City, the world’s biggest city at its own expense, the biggest cemetery of dreams—said to himself.
When he recognized Luke Estrella, a sensation of unreality invaded him. It is a lie that one recognizes people after having looked at their picture a hundred times. The illusion that the whole thing was a game vanished. The guy was there, dragging a black leather suitcase on wheels, sunglasses as dark as death, white patent leather shoes, black pants made from a synthetic nylon that shone with the reflections of the neon lights in the international wing of the airport. Shit, Héctor said to himself, almost regretting having spotted Luke Estrella, who, not knowing he’d been targeted by the astonished gaze of the detective, went on dodging two porters and two little blond girls who were hugging each other and crying under their mother’s long legs.
Estrella was like his photo, but aged, his curly hair was streaked with gray hairs, his lips were thicker and drooping, perhaps in a wince of exhaustion; a tropical sway probably learned in the prostitute bars of Miami, a partially dark grimace in the corner of his mouth, a walk without brushing against anyone, above and distanced from the sparse crowd waiting to divest the relative just in from New York of the booty from the gift shops of Manhattan.
Héctor didn’t know what to do, he had not anticipated Estrella’s materialization in spite of his previous good intentions, he couldn’t quite believe that the guy would appear so unruffled, so alive, in the middle of the night in Mexico City. Estrella dragged his suitcase toward the taxi stand door. Héctor saw him pass practically at his side, brushing against him. Then he reacted and ran out to the tower parking lot. With the first steps of the race the realization came: if he rented a car now, he would never be able to find the gusano. He turned around, reentered the terminal, used the same exit Estrella had. The Cuban was waiting in line. Héctor lined up two places behind him, with a fat German lady between them.
“How much to the Hotel Presidente, kiddo?” Estrella asked into the little window.
Héctor smiled. Detectives, like soccer goalies, have fifty-five percent luck and the rest natural talent to hurl themselves into the appropriate spot.
He entered a cab in his turn, rode calmly through the viaduct. The city was emptier than usual, lonelier, sadder. Passing through Monterrey and the neighborhood of Los Doctores, you could make out the ruins three hundred feet away. Héctor thought about the distance. He needed to back off. He’d approached Estrella twice. A one-eyed man is exceedingly visible, like a brand of cola on a television ad, you always get the feeling you’ve seen him before. The only thing he was missing was a fluorescent T-shirt and a couple of rumba dancers hanging off his arm. He would have to get the glass eye out of the dresser drawer, he would have to put on a no-man’s-face, he’d have to dress like a lamppost, anonymous, like an ad for something out of style, he would have to follow Estrella from a distance if he wanted to fuck him.
And he did.
Previous: Chapter Two
Next: Chapter Four