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Woes of the true policem.., p.15
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       Woes of the True Policeman, p.15

           Roberto Bolaño
 
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  One was tall and fat and the other was short and fat and they were always seeking out each other’s eyes, exchanging glances as if to confer silently about each new situation. They were from Tijuana and they were both named Alejandro: Alejandro Pinto and Alejandro López.

  The job was to protect Don Gabriel Salazar’s wife. They were her private bodyguards; that is, bodyguards of the second rank. More seasoned men were on call for the protection of Don Gabriel, gunmen who came and went with a swagger, men better dressed than Pancho and the pair from Tijuana. Pancho liked the work. He didn’t mind waiting for hours while the mistress visited her friends in Santa Teresa, or leaning on the white Nissan, waiting for her to emerge from a boutique or a drugstore flanked by his two comrades, who on such occasions, out in the field, tended to confer with their eyes even more than usual.

  Of the other bodyguards—the boss’s—he had only a vague impression: they played cards, drank tequila and vodka, were laid-back and swore a lot, at least one of them smoked weed. Their jokes were delivered like remarks about the weather, as if they were discussing the chaparral, the rain, relatives crossing the border. Sometimes, too, they talked about illnesses, all kinds of illnesses, and there no one could match the two tubs from Tijuana. They knew everything, from the different kinds of flu and adult-onset measles to AIDS and syphilis. They talked about dead or retired friends or comrades, afflicted by all kinds of ailments, and the sound of their voices didn’t match their faces: their voices were soft, bereaved, at times murmuring like a river that flows over sandstone and aquatic plants; their gestures, however, were broad and self-satisfied, they smiled with their eyes, their pupils shone, they winked complicitly.

  One of the bodyguards, a Yaqui Indian from Las Valencias, said that death was no laughing matter, much less death from illness, but no one paid any attention to him.

  The bodyguards’ evenings stretched on almost until dawn. Sometimes Pat Cochrane, who spent his nights at the main house, would show up at the gardener’s house to gauge morale, offering words of encouragement when spirits were low, and if he was in a good mood he would even put on water for coffee. In the mornings almost no one talked. They listened to Cochrane or to the birds in the yard and then they went into the kitchen, where Don Gabriel’s old cook made them dozens of fried eggs.

  Though Pancho didn’t trust his two comrades from Tijuana, he soon got used to his new life. One of the gunmen from the big house told him that every so often Don Pedro Negrete supplied new recruits to certain local outfits or power brokers. The food was good and they were paid each Friday. It was Cochrane who assigned tasks, arranged life in the gardener’s house, scheduled guard shifts and escort duties, and paid them at the end of the week. Cochrane had white hair down to his shoulders and was always dressed in black. From one moment to the next, depending whether it was sunny or cloudy, he could seem like an old hippie or a gravedigger. His men said he was tough and they treated him with familiarity, but also with respect. He wasn’t Irish, as some thought, but American, a gringo, and Catholic.

  Every Sunday morning, Don Gabriel Salazar’s wife brought in a priest to say Mass at the private chapel on the other side of the big house. And Cochrane was the first to arrive, nodding to the mistress of the house and sitting in the first row. Next came the domestic staff, the cook, the maids, the gardener, and some bodyguards, though not many of them, since they preferred to spend Sunday mornings at the gardener’s house, playing cards, cleaning their guns, listening to the radio, thinking or sleeping. Pancho Monje never attended the service.

  Once Alejandro Pinto, who didn’t go to Mass, either, asked whether he believed in God or whether he was agnostic. Alejandro Pinto read occultist magazines and knew the meaning of the word agnostic. Pancho didn’t, but he guessed it.

  “Agnostic? That’s for faggots,” he said. “I’m an atheist.”

  “What do you think comes after death?” asked Alejandro Pinto.

  “After death? Nothing.”

  The other bodyguards were surprised that a boy of seventeen should be so sure about what he believed.

  2

  In 1865 a thirteen-year-old orphan was raped by a Belgian soldier in an adobe house in Villaviciosa. The next day the soldier’s throat was cut and nine months later a girl was born, named María Expósito. The young mother died of childbed fever and the girl grew up in the same house where she was conceived, as the ward of the farmworkers who lived there. In 1880, when María Expósito was fifteen, on the feast day of St. Dismas, a drunken stranger rode off with her on his horse, singing at the top of his lungs:

  Qué chingaderas son éstas

  le dijo Dimas a Gestas.

  On the slope of a hill that the country folk, with inscrutable humor, called the Hill of the Dead and that, seen from town, looked like a shy and curious dinosaur, he raped her several times and vanished.

  In 1881 María Expósito had a daughter whom she baptized María Expósito Expósito and who was the wonder of the town of Villaviciosa. From the time she was very small she showed herself to be clever and spirited and although she never learned to read or write she was known as a wise woman, learned in the ways of herbs and medicinal salves.

  In 1897, after she had been away for six days, the young María Expósito appeared one morning in the plaza, a bare space in the center of town, with a broken arm and bruises all over her body. She would never explain what had happened to her, nor did the Villaviciosa officials insist that she tell. Nine months later a girl was born and given the name María Expósito, and her mother, who never married or had any more children or lived with any man, tried to initiate her into the secret art of healing. But the only thing the young María Expósito had in common with her mother was her good nature, a quality shared by all the María Expósitos of Villaviciosa (though some were quiet and others liked to talk), along with a natural ability to forge bravely ahead through periods of violence or extreme poverty.

  The childhood and adolescence of the last María Expósito, however, were more carefree than her mother’s and grandmother’s had been. In 1913, at sixteen, she still thought and behaved like a girl whose only duties were to accompany her mother once a month in search of herbs and medicinal plants and to wash the clothes behind the house, in an old oak trough rather than the public washtubs that the other women used.

  This was the year that Colonel Sabino Duque (who in 1915 would be executed for cowardice) came to town looking for brave men—and the men of Villaviciosa were famous for being something more than brave—to fight for the Revolution. Several boys from the town enlisted, selected by the town officials. One of them, whom until then María Expósito had thought of only as an occasional playmate, the same age as she and seemingly as naïve, decided to declare his love the night before he went to war. For the purpose he chose a grain shed that no one used anymore (since the people of Villaviciosa had little left to store) and when his declaration only made the girl laugh he proceeded to rape her on the spot, desperately and clumsily.

  At dawn, before he left, he promised he would come back and marry her, but seven months later he died in a skirmish with federal troops and he and his horse were swept away by the Río Sangre de Cristo, also known as Hell River because it ran brownish-black. Though María Expósito waited for him, he never returned to Villaviciosa, like so many other boys from the town who went off to war or found work as guns for hire, boys who were never heard of again or who cropped up here and there in stories that might or might not have been true.

  And nine months after his departure María Expósito Expósito was born and young María Expósito, suddenly a mother herself, set to work selling her mother’s potions and the eggs from her own henhouse in the neighboring towns, and she did fairly well.

  In 1917, there was an unusual development in the Expósito family: María got pregnant again and this time she had a boy.

  His name was Rafael and he grew up amid the tumult of the new Mexico. His eyes were green like those of his distant Belgian great-gran
dfather and his gaze had the same strangeness about it that outsiders noted in the gaze of the townspeople of Villaviciosa: it was opaque and intense, the stare of a killer. The identity of his father was never revealed. He might have been a revolutionary soldier, or a federal soldier, since they, too, were seen around town at the time, or he might have been some random local who preferred to remain in prudent anonymity. On the rare occasions when she was asked about the boy’s father, María Expósito, who had gradually adopted her mother’s witchlike language and manner (though all she did was sell the medicinal brews, fumbling among the little rheumatism flasks and the drafts for the curing of melancholy), answered that his father was the devil and Rafael his spitting image, and despite what one might imagine, the inhabitants of Villaviciosa weren’t ruffled in the slightest by this reply, since all the local boys, some more than others and some less, might have been the sons of Pedro Botero.

  In 1933, during a Homeric bender, the bullfighter Celestino Arraya and his comrades from the club The Cowboys of Death arrived early one morning in Villaviciosa, the bullfighter’s hometown, and took rooms at the Valle Hebrón bar, which at the time was also an inn, and shouted for roast goat, which they were served by three village girls. One of those girls was María Expósito. They left the next morning at eleven and four months later María Expósito confessed to her mother that she was going to have a baby. Who’s the father? asked her brother. The women were silent and the boy set out to retrace his sister’s steps on his own. A week later Rafael Expósito borrowed a rifle and set off on foot for Santa Teresa.

  He had never been in such a big place and he was so struck by the bustle of the streets, the Teatro Carlota, and the whores that he decided to spend three days in the city before carrying out his mission. The first day he spent searching for Celestino Arraya’s haunts and a place to sleep for free. He discovered that in certain neighborhoods night was the same as day, and he pledged simply not to sleep. On the second day, as he walked up and down the main street of the red-light district, a short, shapely Yucatecan girl with jet-black hair down to her waist and the look of a woman to be reckoned with took pity on him and brought him home with her. There, in a hotel room, she made him rice soup and then they spent the rest of the day in bed.

  It was the first time for Rafael Expósito. When they parted the whore ordered him to wait for her in the room or, if he wanted to go out, at the entrance to the hotel. The boy said he was in love with her and the whore went off happily, laughing to herself. On the third day she brought him to the Teatro Carlota to hear the ballads of the Dominican troubador Pajarito de la Cruz and the rancheras of José Ramírez, but what the boy liked best were the chorus girls and the magic numbers by Professor Chen Kao, a Chinese conjurer from Michoacán.

  At dusk on the fourth day, well fed and at peace with himself, Rafael Expósito said goodbye to the whore, retrieved the rifle from the vacant lot where he’d hidden it, and headed resolutely to the bar Los Primos Hermanos, where he found Celestino Arraya. Seconds after he shot him he knew without a shadow of a doubt that he had killed him and he felt avenged and happy. He didn’t shut his eyes when the bullfighter’s friends emptied their revolvers into him. He was buried in a pauper’s grave in Santa Teresa.

  In 1933 another María Expósito was born. She was shy and sweet and so tall that even the tallest men in town looked short next to her. From the time she was eight she spent her days helping her mother and grandmother to sell her great-grandmother’s remedies and going along with her grandmother at dawn to gather herbs. Sometimes the peasants of Villaviciosa saw her silhouette against the horizon and it struck them as extraordinary that such a tall, long-legged girl could exist.

  She was the first in her family to learn to read and write. At the age of seventeen she was raped by a peddler and in 1950 a girl was born whom they called María Expósito. By then there were five generations of María Expósitos living together outside Villaviciosa, and the little farmhouse had grown, with rooms added on any old way around the big kitchen with the hearth where the eldest prepared her brews and medicaments. At night, when it was time for dinner, the five always sat down together, the girl, her lanky mother, Rafael’s melancholy sister, the childlike one, and the witch, and often they talked about saints and illnesses, about money, about the weather, and about men, whom they considered a scourge, and they thanked heaven that they were only women.

  In 1968, while the students of Paris were taking to the streets, the young María Expósito, still a virgin, was seduced by three students from Monterrey who were preparing, or so they said, for a revolution of the peasantry, and whom after one thrilling week she never saw again.

  The students lived in a van parked at a bend in the road between Villaviciosa and Santa Teresa and every night María Expósito would slip out of bed to go and meet them. When her great-grandmother asked who the father was, María Expósito remembered a kind of delicious abyss and had a very clear vision: she saw herself, small but mysteriously strong, able to take three men at once. They hurl themselves on me panting like dogs, she thought, from in front and behind so that I can hardly breathe and their cocks are enormous, they’re the cocks of Mexico’s peasant revolution, but inside I’m bigger than them all and they’ll never conquer me.

  By the time her son was born the Paris students had gone home and many Mexican students had stopped existing.

  Against the wishes of her family, who wanted to baptize the boy Rafael, María Expósito called him Francisco, after Saint Francis of Assisi, and decided that the first half of his last name wouldn’t be Expósito, which was a name for orphans, as the students from Monterrey had informed her one night by the light of a campfire, but Monje, Francisco Monje Expósito, two different last names, and that was how she entered it in the register at the parish church despite the priest’s reluctance and his skepticism about the identity of the alleged father. Her great-grandmother said that it was pure arrogance to put the name Monje before Expósito, which was the name she’d always had, and a little while later, when Pancho was two and running naked along the sand-colored streets of Villaviciosa, she died. And when Pancho was five the other old woman, the childish one, died, and when he turned fifteen, Rafael Expósito’s sister died. And when Don Pedro Negrete came for him the only ones left were the lanky Expósito and Pancho’s mother.

  3

  “We saw them from the distance and right away we knew who they were and they knew we knew it and they kept coming. I mean: we knew who they were, they knew who we were, they knew that we knew who they were, we knew that they knew that we knew who they were. Everything was clear. The day had no secrets! I don’t know why, but the thing I remember best about that afternoon are the clothes. Their clothes, especially. The one who was carrying the Magnum, who was going to make sure that Don Gabriel’s wife died, was wearing a sharp white guayabera with stitching on the front. The one carrying the Uzi was in a green serge jacket, maybe two sizes too big.”

  “Ay, the things you know about clothes, darling,” said the whore.

  “I was wearing a white short-sleeved shirt and some drill pants that Cochrane had bought for me and already taken out of my weekly pay. The pants were too big and I had to wear a belt to keep them up.”

  “You’ve always been on the skinny side, sugar,” said the whore.

  “All around me it was the different outfits that were moving, not the flesh-and-blood people. Everything was clear. The afternoon had no secrets! But at the same time, everything was out of whack. I saw skirts, pants, shoes, white tights and black tights, socks, handkerchiefs, jackets, ties, a whole store’s worth of clothes, I saw cowboy hats and straw hats, baseball caps and hair ribbons, and all the clothes flowed along the sidewalk, flowed through the arcade, completely removed from the reality of the pedestrians, as if the flesh they sat on repelled them. Happy people, is what I should have been thinking. I should have envied them. Wanted to be them. People with money in their pockets or not, but glad to be on their way to the movie theater o
r the record store or anywhere, people going to eat or drink beer, or on the way home after a walk. But what I thought was: all those clothes. All those clean, new, useless clothes.”

  “You were probably thinking about the blood, darling,” said the whore.

  “No, I wasn’t thinking about the bullet holes or the blood splattering everything. I was thinking about clothes, that’s all. About the motherfucking pants and shirts going back and forth.”

  “Don’t you want me to go down on you, sugar?” asked the whore.

  “No. Stay where you are. Don Gabriel’s wife, I didn’t see her clothes. I saw her pearl necklace. Like a solar system. And I saw everything about the couple of fat slobs who were with me: the way they looked at each other, the shiny jackets, the dark ties, the white shirts, and the shoes, how to describe them, leather shoes that weren’t old but weren’t new, either, shoes for jerk-offs and scum, shoes for losers, with creases where you can see the pathetic celebrations and fears of men who’ve sold out everything and still think they can be happy or at least hold on to some kind of happiness, some dinner every once in a while, a Sunday with the family and the kids, the poor brats stuck in the desert, the crumpled photos good for squeezing out a couple of tears, tears that stink of shit. Yes, I saw their shoes and then I saw the parade of clothes in the air and I said to myself look at the waste, look at the wealth in this city of sin.”

  “Now you’re exaggerating, love,” said the whore.

  “No, I’m not. It happened exactly the way I’m telling you. Don Gabriel’s wife didn’t even realize that death was on top of her. But the slobs from Tijuana and I saw it and right away we knew what we were seeing. The killers walked like movie stars. Like a weird cross between movie stars and clerks. They walked slowly, not bothering to really hide their guns and never taking their eyes off us for a second. I guess that was when my buddies decided they’d had enough. Those looks, they were thinking, beat the looks they’d been exchanging and after a second, they just spun around and went running, no, not running, trotting like draft horses, swinging past the crowds of people on the sidewalk and the arcade. They didn’t say a thing to me. And I had no time to yell assholes, cowards, faggots.”

 
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