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Woes of the true policem.., p.19
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       Woes of the True Policeman, p.19

           Roberto Bolaño
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  In his reply, which was as long as Padilla’s letter, Amalfitano entangled himself in a series of disquisitions on Arcimboldi that had little to do with what he really wanted to get across: the state of his soul. Don’t leave your proofreading job, he said in the postcript, I imagine you with no money in Barcelona and it scares me. Keep proofreading and keep writing.

  Padilla’s reply was slow in coming and it seemed to have been written in a state of trance. Right off the bat he confessed that he had AIDS. I got the package, he said between jokes. Immediately after that he told Amalfitano to get tested. You might have it, he said, but if you do I promise that you didn’t get it from me. For a year now he had known that he was HIV-positive. Now he had developed the disease. That was all. Soon he would be dead. As far as everything else was concerned, he was no longer working and he had moved back in with his father, who had guessed or gotten some inkling of his son’s illness. Poor old man, said Padilla, he’s had to watch all the people he loves die. Here he rambled on about people like jinxes or dark clouds. The good news was that he had run into the baker from Gracia who used to come to the soirées at the studio near the university. Without asking for anything in return, the baker, having heard that Padilla was sick, had given him a bimonthly allowance, which was what he called it. It wasn’t enough for Padilla to rent an apartment and live alone, but it did cover most of his costs: books, drugs, rooms by the night, dinners at neighborhood restaurants. His prescriptions were paid for by social security. Paradise, as you can see, he said.

  He had already been hospitalized once, two weeks in the contagious-disease ward where he shared a room with three junkies, down-and-out kids who hated faggots though they were all dying by giant steps. But I changed their minds, he said. He promised details in the next letter.

  With The God of Homosexuals, he said, he was proceeding at a snail’s pace. The baker—“my dear Raguenau,” Padilla called him—is my only reader, a dubious privilege that fills him with joy. He had a new lover, a sixteen-year-old rent boy, infected with AIDS and marvelously oblivious, oh, to be him, sighed Padilla as the letter shook in Amalfitano’s hands. Not working for the publishing house was a fascinating feeling that he’d thought he’d lost. Living like a loafer again, I who was put on this earth solely to amuse myself. To amuse myself and make a nuisance of myself every once in a while.

  The Barcelona days were glorious. The Mediterranean shone. Padilla was writing from the terrace of a bar on the Ramblas. People stroll by, he said, and here I sit drinking a double whiskey and I’m happy.


  Near an assembly plant on the edge of town belonging to Don Gabriel Salazar, on a plot designated as a future industrial park, though it had yet to attract a tenant, another girl was found dead.

  She was seventeen, a year older than Edelmira Sánchez. Her name was Alejandra Rosales and she was the mother of an infant son. The cause of death was the same. Her throat had been cut with a large knife, though no trace of blood was found at the scene (as in Parque México), which meant that there was no question that the crime had been committed elsewhere.

  The body of Edelmira Sánchez had turned up on a Monday and her parents had reported her disappearance on Sunday morning. The last time she was seen was Saturday at dinnertime. The body of Alejandra Rosales turned up a week later, but the last time she was seen alive was on Saturday, just before Edelmira said goodbye to her parents. The only one who might have reported her disappearance was her mother-in-law, with whom she lived, but her mother-in-law thought that Alejandra had run off with a man and she had enough on her hands already taking care of her late son’s baby without trying to get to the police station to report the disappearance of a woman she hated and whom she wouldn’t have minded seeing dead.

  According to the medical examiner, both were raped multiple times, presenting slight lacerations to the legs and back, bruising around the wrists (leading to the conclusion that both women had at some point been bound), a fatal slash or two to the neck (severing the carotid artery; in Alejandra’s case the cut was so deep that it almost decapitated her), contusions to the chest and arms, light bruising about the face. No traces of semen were found in either case.

  In Chucho Peguero’s report it said that Alejandra occasionally worked as a prostitute and that on Saturday nights she often frequented La Hélice, a nightclub on Calle Amado Nervo. The night that she disappeared she was seen there by a witness, her friend Guadalupe Guillén. According to the latter, at about 8:00 p.m. Alejandra was on La Hélice’s dance floor, dancing a merengue. Guadalupe Guillén didn’t see her again for the rest of the night. No one saw her leave the club. Edelmira Sánchez, meanwhile, spent her Saturday nights at the New York, a club mainly for teenagers on Avenida Escandón, where she arrived at around 7:30 p.m. By midnight she was usually already on her way home with her boyfriend or her friends, because Edelmira didn’t have her own car. That Saturday night, Alejandra wasn’t seen at the New York, nor was Edelmira seen at La Hélice.

  Edelmira was almost certainly killed on Sunday, between noon and midnight. Alejandra, meanwhile, was held for longer: she was probably killed on Thursday or Friday, twenty-four hours before some children found her body near the assembly plant.


  Gumaro guided Pancho’s first steps on the Santa Teresa police force. When they ran into each other at the station in the morning, he would say: come with me, let your buddies pick up the slack, I want to talk to you. And Pancho would drop whatever he was doing and go with him. Gumaro was nondescript in appearance, neither very tall nor very big, and he had a small head, like a lizard. It was hard to guess his age and he might have been older than everyone thought. To some people, he came across as none too impressive, too small and thin to be a policeman, but if they looked him in the eyes they could tell that he was no ordinary man.

  Very late one night, at the bar La Estela, Pancho watched him closely for a while and discovered that he hardly ever blinked. He reported this to Gumaro and asked why he did things differently from ordinary mortals. Gumaro answered that when he closed his eyes it gave him a terrible pain in the head.

  “So how do you sleep?” asked Pancho.

  “I fall asleep with my eyes open and once I’m asleep I close them.”

  He had no fixed address. He could be found at any of the Santa Teresa police stations and he never seemed to be busy, not even when he was performing his duties as Don Pedro Negrete’s driver. Everyone owed him favors, favors of all kinds, but he only took orders from Don Pedro.

  He told Pancho that he was going to teach him how to be a policeman. It’s the best job in the world, said Gumaro, the only one in which you’re truly free or you know for a fact—without the shadow of a doubt—that you aren’t. Either way, it’s like living in a house of raw flesh, he said. Other times he said that there should be no police force, the army was enough.

  He liked to talk. He especially liked to carry on one-sided conversations. He also liked to make jokes that only he laughed at. He didn’t have a wife or children. He felt sorry for children and avoided them, and women left him cold. Once a bartender who didn’t know him asked why he didn’t find himself a wife. Gumaro was surrounded by on-duty and off-duty officers and all of them fell silent, waiting to hear his reply, but he didn’t say anything, just kept drinking his Tecate as if nothing had happened, and ten minutes later the bartender came over again and said he was sorry.

  “Sorry for what, pal,” asked Gumaro.

  “For being rude, Sergeant,” said the bartender.

  “You aren’t rude,” said Gumaro, “you’re a jackass, or just an ass.”

  And that was it. He didn’t hold grudges and he didn’t have a temper.

  Sometimes he stopped by the place where a crime had been committed. When he arrived everyone stood aside, even the judge or the medical examiner, with whom he was on first-name terms. Without saying a word, absorbed in his own thoughts, his hands buried in his pockets, he cast an eye over the victim, the victim’s eff
ects, and what some policemen call the scene of the crime, and then he left as silently as he’d come and never returned.

  No one knew where he lived. Some said that it was in Don Pedro Negrete’s basement, while others claimed that he didn’t have a place to call home and that he did sometimes sleep in the cells, empty or not, at the General Sepúlveda police station. Pancho was one of the few who knew from the start (in an extraordinary show of confidence on Gumaro’s part) that in fact he sometimes slept in Don Pedro’s basement, in a little room that had been fixed up especially for him, and sometimes in the cells at the station, but most nights, or days, he slept at a guesthouse in Colonia El Milagro, five blocks from Pancho’s apartment. The owner was a woman in her early fifties with a lawyer son who worked in Monterrey. She treated Gumaro like one of the family. Her husband was a policeman who had been killed in the line of duty. Her name was Felicidad Pérez and she was always asking Gumaro for little favors that he never granted.

  Many times Pancho followed him from bar to bar until dawn.

  Gumaro drank a lot, but he almost never showed the effects of alcohol. When he got drunk he would pull his chair over to the window and scrutinize the sky, saying:

  “My brain needs air.”

  This meant that he was elsewhere. Then he would start to talk about vampires.

  “How many Dracula movies have you seen?” he asked Pancho.

  “None, Gumaro.”

  “Then you don’t know much about vampires,” said Gumaro.

  Other times he talked about desert towns or villages or hamlets that only communicated among themselves, with no regard for borders or language. Towns that were one or two thousand years old and where scarcely fifty or one hundred people lived.

  “What towns are those, Gumaro?” Pancho asked.

  “Towns of vampires or white worms,” said Gumaro, “which amounts to the same thing. Godforsaken shitholes where the urge to kill runs as strong as the urge to live.”

  Pancho imagined two or three cantinas, one grocery store, and courtyards paved in concrete, facing west. Like Villaviciosa.

  “So where are these towns?” he asked.

  “Here and there,” said Gumaro, “on either side of the border, like a renegade state inside Mexico and also the United States. An invisible state.”

  Once, for work, Gumaro had to visit one of these towns. Of course, he didn’t know what it was at the time.

  “You never know these things,” he told Pancho.

  The road was dirt, but it wasn’t bad, though the last twenty miles were only a track through the rocks and the desert. They arrived at four in the afternoon. The town had thirty inhabitants and half of the houses were empty. With Gumaro were Sebastián Romero and Marco Antonio Guzmán, two veteran Santa Teresa policemen. They were going to arrest a Mexican who had wiped out his two Yankee partners in San Bernabé, Arizona. It was the San Bernabé police chief who had gotten the tip and he called Don Pedro Negrete and came to an arrangement. The Santa Teresa policemen would arrest the killer and then cross the border with him. The men from San Bernabé would be waiting on the other side, and they would receive the prisoner. Afterward, they would say that they had found the killer wandering in the desert, howling at the moon like a coyote, with everything happening on the American side, everything perfectly legal.

  Guzmán got sick as soon as they arrived. He was shivering with fever and vomiting, so they left him in the backseat of the car, covered with a blanket and babbling about masked wrestlers. Then Gumaro and Romero went from house to house through the town, guided by an old woman with a limp, but they didn’t find anything. Either the information they had gotten from the San Bernabé police chief was no good or the killer had long since disappeared, because they didn’t find a single scrap of evidence that he had ever been there.

  One of the strange things that Gumaro saw as they went back and forth, aware already that the search was useless, were the eyes of some of the animals. They were rubbed-out eyes, he said to Pancho. Eyes from the beyond. Fading into nothing. As if the donkeys and dogs were intelligent and their souls were bigger than human souls.

  “If it was up to me,” said Gumaro, “I would have drawn my gun and shot all those animals.”

  Before it got dark they left without the man they’d come to find and back in Santa Teresa Don Pedro Negrete was very upset because he owed the police chief of San Bernabé a favor.

  Gumaro talked about towns of white worms and towns of buzzards, towns of coyotes and towns of tiny birds. And these were precisely the things, he said, that a true policeman needed to know about. Pancho thought he was crazy. At dawn they went to eat pozole at El Almira, owned by Doña Milagros Reina, who in her day had been one of Santa Teresa’s top whores. By this time Gumaro wasn’t talking about anything: not policemen, not towns of vampires, not white worms. He ate his pozole like a man near death and then he said that he had things to do and he vanished all of a sudden down some random street.

  “Come sleep it off at my place,” Pancho offered many times, sorry to see him looking so pale and shaky. “Come and stay for a while until you feel better.”

  But Gumaro always ignored him, and suddenly, before he had finished talking, he would vanish. Without saying goodbye, as if at that hour everyone was a stranger to him.


  Padilla’s next letter seemed to have been written by a different person, someone who had just been operated on and was still under the effects of the anesthesia. It said that he had gone with Raguenau and a kid called Adrià to Tibidabo, the amusement park, and everything, absolutely everything, had been so beautiful that he was unable—on repeated occasions, on repeated and baffling occasions, on repeated and crystal clear occasions—to contain his tears. I cried, he said, like someone who finds true religion and sees it for what it is and knows that his salvation lies in it, but carries on regardless.

  On the roller coaster, he said, as the lights of Barcelona and the endless darkness of the Mediterranean swam in and out of view, I had one of the most glorious erections of my life, my cock was rock hard, it swelled so big that my testicles and the shaft hurt, I was afraid to touch it, the bulge under my jeans throbbed, it beat like a racing heart, its length reached almost to my navel (my God, thought Amalfitano), good thing it happened where it did, in a public place, added Padilla, because it would have been more than any ass in the world could handle.

  Then he said that Raguenau and the kid, who was apparently his nephew, had brought him to the pastry shop of another baker, an old friend of Raguenau’s, a guy in his seventies who presented them with an assortment of delicious cookies and cakes, nice relaxing conversation, and the music of Mompou. I’d like to live like that always, said Padilla, surrounded by people like that, sharing pleasures like those, though I know that if you scratch the surface you discover that it’s all just polite anguish, genteel anguish, or if you’re lucky, anguish chased by a good shot in the arm of Nolotil, but the friendship they offer me is real, and that should be enough, whatever the circumstances. About The God of Homosexuals he said nothing.

  Around this time Amalfitano was too busy preparing his classes (combing American libraries and universities for the scattered and forgotten books of Jean-Marie Guyau) and all he could send was a postcard in which he explained clumsily how busy he was and inquired about the progress of the novel.

  Padilla’s reply was long and cheerful, but hard to follow. I’m sure you’ve found a new love, he said, and I’m sure you’re enjoying yourself. Carry on! He reminded him of the Byrds song (was it the Byrds?), the one that goes if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with, and—strangely, if this was what he really believed—he didn’t ask for any information about Amalfitano’s new lover, I imagine, he said, that it’s probably one of your students. And yet in the next paragraph the tone of the letter changed dramatically and he implored him not to let his guard down. Don’t let anyone play you, he begged, anyone at all, even if he’s the hottest guy around and he
does it better than anyone else, under no circumstances should you let yourself be taken advantage of. Then he rambled on about the loneliness that Amalfitano bore and the risks to which that loneliness exposed him. By the end, the letter recovered its cheerful tone (in fact, the lines about loneliness and the danger of being played were like a small anxiety attack enclosed within parentheses) and talked about the winter and the spring, the flower stands on the Ramblas and the rain, about glossy shades of gray and the black stones hidden in the walls of the Old City. In the postcript he sent his regards to Rosa (for the first time, since Padilla usually acted as if Rosa didn’t exist) and said that he had read Arcimboldi’s last novel, 105 pages, about a doctor who upon inheriting the ancestral home finds a collection of masks of human flesh. Each flask—in which the masks float in a viscous liquid that seems to swallow light—is numbered and after a brief search the doctor finds, in a thick book of accounts, a collection of explanatory verses, numbered in turn, which, as in New Impressions of Africa, cast spadefuls of clarity or spadefuls of coal dust on the origin and destiny of the masks.

  Amalfitano’s response was feeble, to put it mildly. He talked about his daughter, about the vast skies of Sonora, about philosophers Padilla had never heard of, and about Professor Isabel Aguilar, who lived alone in a small apartment in the center of the city and who had been so good to them.

  Padilla’s next letter, four pages typewritten on both sides, struck Amalfitano as melancholy in the extreme. He talked about his father and his father’s health, about the way he, as a boy, had noticed the fluctuations in his father’s health, about his clinical eye for his father’s aches and pains, spells of flu, attacks of weariness, bronchial infections, fits of depression. Then, of course, he didn’t do anything to help, didn’t even care that much. If my father had died when I was twelve I wouldn’t have shed a single tear. He talked about his house, about his father’s comings and goings, about his father’s ear (like a broken-down satellite dish) when it was he who was coming and going, about the dining room table, sturdy, made of solid wood, but soulless, as if its spirit had fled long ago, about the three chairs, one always unoccupied, off to one side, or perhaps stacked with books or clothing, about the sealed packages that his father opened in the kitchen, never the dining room, about the dirty lamp that hung too high, about the corners of the apartment or the ceiling that sometimes, on euphoric or drug-fueled nights, looked like eyes, but closed or dead eyes, as he always realized a second later despite the euphoria or the drugs, and as he realized now despite how much he would have liked to be wrong, eyes that didn’t open, eyes that didn’t blink, eyes that didn’t see. He also talked about the streets of his neighborhood, the little shops where he went to buy things when he was eight, the newsstands, the street that used to be called Avenida José Antonio, a street that was like the river of life and that he now remembered fondly, even the name José Antonio, which was so reviled but which in memory retained a trace of beauty and sadness, like the name of a bullfighter or a composer of boleros who dies young. A homosexual youth killed by the forces of Nature and Progress.

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