That it is ridiculous to speak of joy
that “the promised land” does not exist
that our rage will find no calm.
All this I know.
October 2015, Hotel Calexico, Mexicali, Baja California, México
Memo, it’s so long since I spoke to you, your face is blurred in my mind. Do you remember the last time? I do. How could I forget? In case you’re struggling, I’ll refresh your memory: it was when Elodio got elected municipal president. You turned up dressed the part, your small-time city politician shoes; gangster shoes. You looked good.
And you smelled good too. It was plain you were making deals with buddies of Elodio’s buddies. But you think you’re such a big shot. You nodded at me as if I was a piece of dirt, as if we were in different classes now. You hobnobbing with the politicos; me doing the security for their party. Anyone would have thought we were strangers, that we hardly knew each other. How’s things, Manuel? And a pat on the back, like I was a puppy, and then you were gone. Bastard that you are. And now you’re there, accused of trafficking trannies who are you going to come squealing to?
Memo, I just want to tell you one thing, and I want you to hear it clearly. I’m writing as a way of pulling a thorn out of my flesh. You owe your life to me, you bastard, and I’m going to put it to you straight: I’m not Uncle Manuel, I’m not the uncle who took you for ice cream every Sunday, the police-officer uncle who gave you advice about how to get girls into bed. I’m not what you think I am, and you’re not who you think you are. Let’s see if you’ll regret not shaking the hand of the only person you really owe something.
Trash, trash, trash. The letters on the paper, the words you wrote. They mean nothing to me. For me, you stopped being what you were a long time ago, even before you made yourself into the bastard I read about in the newspapers these days.
You ask me to write, tell you how things are, but you don’t say much about yourself. Look what bastards the two of us have become. You there, accused of what they accused you of, and me here, also serving a sentence, though it might look like I’m at liberty. That day I found you, you were no more than a baby, with coffee-colored eyes and pale, almost transparent skin, bawling at the top of your lungs. It was a Sunday. I remember because the drunks were scattered along the streets like discarded piñatas.
I was walking around near the chapel in the pine grove—the two-bit little place no one ever went to, and where they never said mass—when I heard that cry like a cat on heat, almost as loud as the noise of the train passing close by. I went over and saw your monster’s face, your freak’s face. Who was going to love a baby that bawled that way? Will you ever be grateful for what I did for you Memo, or Tomás, or Tommy, or whatever you call yourself?
And writing this, I’m beginning to wonder if it was a coincidence, or an act of God, as my mother would have said, that both you and Dad turned up on a Sunday. Him in his cowboy boots, with his big gringo bag, and his shades, from the other side of the border. You with your devil’s face abandoned in the chapel.
In those days, when Dad came back, the town was much smaller than the one you knew. There was just the one cement works, Rafaela’s store, La Moctezuma, the Doña Ana bakery, and a few other businesses. The streets were just dust, Memo, a fine white dust that got up your nose and in your ears.
And there we were, playing outside Rafaela’s store, like we always did, kicking the dirt, rooting up bottle tops, and whatever else kids do, when the pickup came into town from the north. Everything went still: we left off our games, the ladies hushed their chatter, the dogs stopped pissing. We were all staring at those lucky people returning flush with dollars to our hot land. I stood there like an idiot, watching the three of them get out of the pickup: a really fat woman, and two men. I don’t know how I was so certain the one with the baseball cap and shades was my dad. It could have been any stranger, but then blood’s thicker than water. He recognized me, gave a slight nod, and walked away. I watched him kicking the scrawny bellies of the dogs. He shouted, hey dog, but affectionately, or almost, as if during all that time in Yankeeland, the only thing he’d really missed was kicking dogs. I watched them go into Abraham’s pulque bar, and through the window saw them order just one drink each, a shot. I watched him throwing some chili peppers to a bunch of barefoot kids, and then he came and stood in front of me, smelling of scent, breathing like a tired horse. You a fag yet? he asked, but not in a bad way, like it was funny.
He went into the house. The same one you lived in, except there was no second floor then, no bathroom with pink tiles, no stone fountain in the middle of the patio. When he said hi to my mom, she just turned pale with shock (or pleasure, your guess is as good as mine), and then told me to go to Don Manuel’s for tortillas, and not to come back until seven. And I went out, banging the door, not really knowing what was going on.
I’ve put a lot of money into the house, it’s all fine quality stuff now. Well, things haven’t gone too badly for me. You just have to use your wits, know how handle situations, make the most of what comes your way. And a lot comes your way as a police officer.
I’m still wondering: When did it happen? Just when did you change so much? You were even smart as a child. Didn’t you win that math prize? Sometimes I think everything changed when I sent you to live with Fr. Teo, after the boss died. But how was I supposed to bring up a kid on my own?
The train, Memo, Tommy, or whatever you call yourself, is a worm, and I like watching it, it’s a slow-moving worm carrying the stinking, fucked-up bodies of those Hondurans. From where I am, out here in the flatlands, I can see their skinny bodies on the hopper car. Sometimes they fall off like flies, and sometimes they rise up like horrific birds.
I wish you could see me here, in my patrol car: listening to “La Zeta”, taking sips of lukewarm coffee from my polystyrene cup, waiting for one of those stinking bodies to fall. And that’s when I make my money. It’d drive you crazy if you knew how much I rake off. (You have to make the best of what comes your way.)
Do you remember when you came to the house in the middle of a storm, after you’d been almost a year in the priest’s school? I suppose I should have let you in. I remember your drenched dog’s face saying, Manuel, open up. That night I saw something like fear in your eyes for the first time. What’s wrong with you, kid? Go back to the church, Fr. Teo’ll be out looking for you, I said from the window, hardly even moving. I can’t. I won’t, you told me. Don’t talk trash, I said. It’s dark, go back. Now.
The rain was pouring down, and a torrent of water was crashing onto the rose-colored stone of the patio. Mom used to love that stone. You appeared again in the window, like a ghost. You banged on the glass, shouted. I switched off the lights, went to the bedroom, and fell asleep.
You should have become a police officer like me. It’s the best, Memo. I patrol the town, and I like to think I’m in control of everything that happens, as if I was a movie director. I walk down the main street, and see Carmen—the woman who sells fruit—slowly lowering the metal grille of her store, until the whole door is covered, and she’s separated from the world, and from me. I pass by the YoMa general store on the corner, and the group of construction workers sitting on wooden boxes, logs, or the ground, raising their beer bottles, as if offering me a drink, saying: How’s things, officer Manuel? Fabiola, who’s not as tasty a bite as when you knew her, lifts her head and gives me a slight smile, all the time frying pambazos in a comal, and then serving them on plastic plates to a couple of fat, middle-aged women.
After that, it’s just closed doorways and windows, lights, houses. People indoors snacking on their bread and sweetened milk in front of the TV, and their dumb chatter. Then the street turns into the flatlands that look almost white when there’s a full moon. I don’t pass anything but a couple of mules, no one lives out there, around the tracks. That’s where I find that bitter solitude, and that’s where I’m the king, where everything is mine.
Listen, one time someone told me that everything you see, everything they say to you, everything you tell yourself, is only a broken truth, half lies, and that’s why I’m writing this, with this pen, on this paper. To at least tell my side of the story. How long are you going to be locked up? I hope it will be a long stretch, and that you’ll consider your sins. But I also believe you learned something from me, because I’m no conformist either. I’m a fighter. Just as I’m sure you do, I refuse to be ordinary, like Doña Fabiola or those people who are just there, inhabiting the world, and then not inhabiting it, without ever having done a single thing. I refuse to be like that. That’s why I became a police officer.
Translated by Christina MacSweeney