Woes of the True Policeman, p.16Roberto Bolaño
“The worst kind of trash, darling,” said the whore.
“I stood there motionless, next to the señora, who didn’t know what was going on, why we had stopped, noticing how my white shirt and drill pants were shivering, too big, if my belt hadn’t been pulled tight they would’ve fallen down and lain there shivering on the ground. But I also had time to get a look at the killers. One of them, the one with the Magnum, walked on as if he hadn’t noticed a thing, and the other one smiled at the sight of my two buddies running off, as if to say life is funny isn’t it, as if to say running away isn’t cowardice, it just means you’re light on your feet. I noticed the one with the Magnum: he reminded me of someone from Villaviciosa. There was something sad and serious about him and he wasn’t so young anymore, or that’s how it seemed to me. Not the other one, I’m sure the other one was from the city. Then people began to back away, probably because they saw the guns or because all of a sudden they realized that there was going to be a shoot-out or because they got a look at the señora and me and thought we looked like goners.”
“I can imagine how scared you must have been, love,” said the whore.
“I wasn’t afraid. I waited until they were just fifteen feet away and when I had them there, before anyone could scream, I pulled my gun out nice and easy, no sudden movements, and took them both down. The assholes never got a shot out. The one with the Uzi died with a look of surprise on his face. Then I turned, angrily, since rage was all I felt then, and I emptied the rest of the clip at the slobs from Tijuana trotting away, but they were already too far. I think I wounded a bystander.”
“You’re a real son of a bitch, darling,” said the whore.
“They held me for five hours at the General Sepúlveda police station. Don Gabriel’s wife told the police that I was her bodyguard but they didn’t believe her. Before they put me in the patrol car I told her to call her husband and then go to some coffee shop to wait for him and not come out, and if there was a way to lock herself in the bathroom at the coffee shop, she should go ahead and do it. Then they cuffed me, put me in the patrol car, and took me to the station.”
“I’m sure they knocked you around, love,” said the whore.
“I had to answer all kinds of questions. The police wanted to know whether I knew either of the dead men, whether I knew the wounded pedestrian, why I fired at the slobs, whether I was high and what drugs I consumed on a regular basis, whether it was me who killed Pérez Delfino, Juan Pérez Delfino, Virgilio Montes’s right-hand man, whether I knew any traffickers from Arizona, whether I had ever been to some fucking bar in Hermosillo, the Adiós, Mi Lupe, where I’d gotten the gun, whether I was friends with Robert Alvarado, whether I had ever been to prison and what prison and why and how many times. I’ve never been locked up, I told them. I wasn’t shivering anymore and my brain was registering people instead of clothes, people with an interest in me, people who wanted to hear what I had to say, people who wanted to sucker-punch me, people having fun or bored of it all, people doing their jobs. But I didn’t say a word. Where did you learn to shoot? asked those flesh-and-blood people, do you have a permit? where the hell do you live? And I just kept my mouth shut, call Don Gabriel Salazar, he’ll tell you whatever he thinks you need to know.”
“You took it like a man, darling,” said the whore.
“Five hours later Don Pedro Negrete arrived and the policemen stood to attention. Don Pedro came in with a smile on his face and his hands in his pockets, like he had all the time in the world and he didn’t mind coming in to the station on a Saturday night. Who put this boy in the tank? he asked without raising his voice. The deputies who were questioning me pissed themselves they were so scared. Me, boss, said one. Ay, Ramírez, you really fucked up this time, said Don Pedro, and Ramírez almost threw himself at his feet to kiss them, no, Don Pedro, it was just routine, I swear, Don Pedro, we never laid a finger on him, ask him, for the love of God, Don Pedro, and Don Pedro looked down at the ground, looked at me, looked around at the other policemen, ay, Ramírez, Don Pedro laughed, ay, Ramírez, and everyone except for me started to laugh, too, they were starting to recover, relax, and they laughed, they laughed at poor Ramírez, man, you’re in the shit now and Ramírez gave each of them a look, one by one, like he was saying have you all gone crazy? and then even I laughed, and that poor dumbshit Ramírez finally laughed a little too. And now that I think of it, the laughing sounded strange, it was laughing but it was something else too. You’ve never heard a bunch of cops laughing at another cop in an interrogation room. It was a kind of onion laugh. The bad boy inside each of them laughed and the onion burned away little by little. The laughs echoed off the damp walls. The onions were small and fierce. And to me it felt like a welcome or a celebration.”
“I like to hear one cop laugh, not a lot of cops all together, sugar,” said the whore.
“Gumaro, who was leaning in the doorway and who I hadn’t noticed until then, laughing. Don Pedro Negrete laughing, which was like the laughter of God and smelled like whiskey and expensive cigarettes. And all the laughing from the men who were about to be my crew, finding it honest-to-God funny, the beating that son of a bitch Ramírez was going to take.”
“I think I know the Ramírez you’re talking about, love,” said the whore.
“I don’t think so, Ramírez died before you got here. He tried to get Don Gabriel Salazar to hire him, but it didn’t work. Don Gabriel wanted me, but Don Pedro Negrete told him he couldn’t have me, he’d had his chance and now he’d lost it, he’d put me with two faggots who weren’t worth even a bullet in the back of the head, his man Pat Cochrane was worthless, and I wouldn’t be coming back. I gave you the boy, Gabriel, he said, and you almost got him killed. This time I’m keeping him. That was how I quit working for Don Gabriel Salazar. Don Gabriel wasn’t too happy with Don Pedro’s explanation, but when he said goodbye to me he gave me an envelope of money, from his wife, he said, who’d been a wreck for a week but who was still grateful for my services. With the money, I bought myself clothes and rented an apartment in Colonia El Milagro, on the south side of Santa Teresa.”
“You’ve never invited me to your apartment, sugar,” said the whore.
“It was my first place and it’s still the only place I’ve ever had. It’s on the third floor and it has a dining room, a kitchen, a bathroom, and a bedroom. It doesn’t get any light, which for me is an advantage because I usually sleep during the day and I like the dark. When I turned eighteen I bought myself a ’74 Ford Mustang. It was an old car, but it was pretty and the engine had been tuned. You could say that it was almost a gift. One good turn deserves another, Pancho, they told me, and I said okay.”
Pedro and Pablo Negrete were born in Santa Teresa in 1930. To the surprise of their family and the amusement of the neighbors they turned out to be monozygotic twins. Until they were sixteen they were identical and only their mother could tell them apart. Then life changed the brothers radically, though beneath the surface a keen student of human physiognomy could see that their physical differences were like the reaction of each to the other. Thus, Pedro’s mustache and Pedro’s eyes, his strong hands, his steady pulse, his gut, the belly of a man who likes his food and drink, found their perfect counterpart, their ultimate elucidation, in the bloodless lips and thick glasses that Pablo had been stuck with since his sixteenth birthday, his manicured hands and his flat and ulcer-plagued stomach. Until well into adolescence both were of medium height, thin, dark, mild-looking. Then Pablo grew two inches taller than his brother and acquired a perennial expression of perplexity. Pedro, in contrast, remained the same height—in fact, as he got fatter he seemed to shrink—but his features grew stronger and his face filled out and his meekness was exchanged for an effortless congeniality, a deceptive congeniality that actually inspired respect or fear. By the time they were seventeen they were completely different. Pablo decided that he wanted to go to college and Pedro joined the Santa Teresa police force, thanks to
Pedro, shoehorned into a shiny blue uniform, spent his days wandering Colonia Juárez, especially Calle Mina, home to streetwalkers and the strangest stores in the city: hardware shops that looked like gunsmiths’ shops, gunsmiths’ shops that looked like jails, doctors’ offices that cured impotence and all kinds of venereal diseases, tiny bookstores where mystery novels, romance novels, and books about World War II overflowed onto the sidewalk, taxidermist shops that displayed leopards and eagles on their high, dark shelves, cantinas and pulquerías frequented by shady-looking characters.
Pablo, meanwhile, embarked on the study of law and at night he washed dishes at an Italian restaurant on Calle Veracruz, between Colonia Escobedo and Colonia Juárez. The owner was a former teacher of his, a professor of rhetoric, and the restaurant was the only Italian spot in Santa Teresa, at least in those days. Later there were pizzerias and hamburger joints and even soda fountains, everything to suit the tastes of a modern city, but back then there was only one Italian restaurant, one Basque-French restaurant, and three Chinese holes-in-the-wall. Everywhere else the food was Mexican.
The first years weren’t easy. A certain tendency toward melancholy and a reasonably happy childhood did nothing to prepare the two brothers for the world of work, but at the core they were tough and they soldiered on. Little by little they got ahead and managed to adapt to their circumstances. Although Pablo Negrete soon realized that the law bored him more than it interested him, a small amount of scheming got him his degree and a scholarship to study philosophy in the capital. Pedro, meanwhile, furnished sufficient proof of his courage as a police officer and a man, but most of all of his exquisite nose and tactful handling of the people who mattered. Quietly he rose through the ranks of the Santa Teresa police department. His superiors respected him and his subordinates half loved and half feared him. It was around this time that all kinds of gossip about him began to spread. It was said that he had slit the throat of a whore in her hotel room, that he had killed a leader of the railroad union (though the train didn’t pass through Santa Teresa), that for the benefit of a local rancher he had engineered the disappearance of five seasonal workers clamoring for what they were owed. But nothing could ever be proved.
Pablo completed his philosophy degree with a thesis titled Heidegger and Mexican Thought, which some fellow students and professors judged to be in the great critical tradition and that was actually tossed off in twenty-five days, plagiarized from all kinds of sources, by the Michoacán poet Orestes Gullón, who three years later would die of cirrhosis of the liver. Gullón, reporter for El Nacional, author of slanderous palindromes and acrostics, as well as poems occasionally published in a few Mexico City journals and provincial newspapers, was Pablo Negrete’s one friend during his profitable and happy time in the capital; serious-minded and polite, he knew how to avoid making enemies, but his only real friend was Gullón. With the latter he spent time at Café La Habana, on Calle Bucareli, and at the bar La Encrucijada, on Bucareli at Victoria, and at some dubious dance halls on Avenida Guerrero.
The northerner and his friend from Michoacán were an odd couple. Gullón was a talker, cultivated and self-centered. Pablo Negrete was reserved, not too busy grooming his ego—though he did put a lot of care into his attire—and his knowledge of the Greek classics left much to be desired. He was interested in German philosophy. Gullón professed an Olympic disdain for it: he said that the only decent German philosopher was Lichtenberg, who was less a philosopher than the ultimate jokester and clown. He liked Montaigne and Pascal. And he could recite from memory bits of Empedocles, Anaxagoras, Heraclitus, Parmenides, and Zeno of Elea, to the delight of Pablo, who grew fonder and fonder of him as time went by.
Unlike his brother, Pedro Negrete had many friends. Being a policeman made it easier. A policeman, he discovered without being taught, could be friends with anyone he wanted. The cultivation of friendship, an art previously foreign to him, became his favorite pastime. As a boy, friendship had struck him as mysterious, sometimes risky, even reckless. When he was older he understood that friendship—the essence of friendship—resided in the guts, not the brain or the heart. Everything boiled down to the play of mutual interests and a way of touching people (touching them physically, hugging them, slapping them on the back) with confidence. And it was precisely in the police force where this art was most vigorously practiced.
In 1958, at the age of twenty-eight, he was named detective. Shortly afterward Pablo returned to Santa Teresa and obtained a post at the university. They had no money but they had wiles and they continued to rise in their careers. In 1977 Pedro Negrete was promoted to police chief of Santa Teresa. In 1982, after his predecessor became embroiled in a scandal, Peblo Negrete took the rector’s chair.
Shortly after meeting Amalfitano—seven hours later, in fact—Pablo called Pedro. The call was prompted by a premonition. This is how it happened: that afternoon, the new philosophy professor had stopped by his office to introduce himself, and that night, in the quiet of his library, with a whiskey and the third tome of Guillermo Molina’s History of Mexico within easy reach, the rector found himself thinking again about the professor. His name was Óscar Amalfitano, he was Chilean, he had previously worked in Europe. And then he had the vision. He wasn’t drunk or especially tired, so it was a real vision. (Or I’m going crazy, he thought, but immediately rejected the idea.) In his vision, Amalfitano was riding one of the horses of the Apocalypse through the streets of Santa Teresa. He was naked, his white hair was wild and bloody, and he was shouting in terror or joy, it wasn’t clear which. The horse neighed as if it were in its death throes. Its neighs stank, literally. As the horseman rode by, the dead piled up in the doorways of the old city. The streets filled with corpses that decomposed rapidly, as if time were dictated by the fiendishly swift passage of horseman and horse. Later, as the vision faded, he saw miniature tanks and patrol cars at the university and torn banners, though this time there were no dead bodies. They’ve taken them away, he thought.
That night he couldn’t find Pedro anywhere and it took him longer than usual to fall asleep. The next day he called the General Sepúlveda police station and tried to reach his brother. He wasn’t there. He called him at home and didn’t catch him there, either. At night, from his office, he called the police station again. He was asked to hold. From the window he watched the lights of the neighboring buildings go out and the last students scattering across the campus. He heard his brother’s voice at the other end of the line.
“I need a report on a foreign national,” he said, “a discreet inquiry, just for the sake of curiosity.”
It wasn’t the first time he’d asked his brother for such a favor.
“Professor or student?” asked Pedro Negrete, who had taken the call in the middle of a poker game.
“Professor,” he said.
“Name, first and last,” said Pedro, gazing gloomily at his cards.
The rector gave them to him.
“You’ll have his life and complete works in a week,” promised his brother, and he hung up.
Amalfitano was born in 1942, in Temuco, Chile, the day the Nazis launched their offensive in the Caucasus.
He completed his secondary education at a high school lost on the muddy plain and wreathed in the mists of the south. He learned to dance rock and roll and the twist, the bolero and the tango, but not the cueca, though more than once he bounded under the leafy bower, handkerchief at the ready and driven by something deep inside of him because he had no friends in his burst of patriotism, only enemies, purist hicks scandalized by his heel-tapping cueca, his gratuitous and suicidal heterodoxy. He slept off his first drinking binges under a tree and met the imploring eyes of Carmencita Martínez and swam one stormy afternoon in Las Ventanas. He felt misunderstood and lonely. For a brief time he heard the music of the spheres on the bus and in restaurants, as if he had gon
At some point in his life he realized that Edith Lieberman deserved the world, which was more than he could give her. He drank with Jorge Teillier and he discussed psychoanalysis with Enrique Lihn. He was expelled from the Communist Party and he continued to believe in the class struggle and the fight for the revolution of the Americas. He taught philosophy at the University of Chile and he published essays on Gramsci, Walter Benjamin, and Marcuse. He signed declarations and letters by leftist groups. He predicted the fall of Allende but he did nothing to prepare for it.
After the coup he was arrested and brought in blindfolded to be interrogated. He was tortured half-heartedly but believed that he had endured the worst and was surprised by his resistance. He spent several months in prison and when he got out he joined Edith Lieberman in Buenos Aires. At first he made a living as a translator. He translated John Donne, Spenser, Ben Jonson, and Henry Howard for a series of English classics. He found work as a teacher of philosophy and literature at a private middle school and then he had to leave Argentina because the political situation had become untenable.
He spent a while in Rio de Janeiro and then they went to live in Mexico City. There his daughter, Rosa, was born and he translated J.M.G. Arcimboldi’s The Endless Rose from the French for a Buenos Aires publishing house while listening to his beloved Edith speculate that Rosa’s name was an homage to the title of the novel and not, as he claimed, a tribute to Rosa Luxemburg. Then they went to live in Canada and then Nicaragua because both of them wanted their daughter to grow up in a revolutionary country.
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