The phone rang twenty times. The caller must have been thinking that I live in a villa where it takes forever to get from the stables to the phone, or that there’s no such thing as cordless phones here, or that I experience ﬁts of mystic uncertainty and have a hard time deciding to pick up the receiver. That last one was true, I’m sorry to say.
It was Samuel Katzenberg. He had come back to Mexico to do a story on violence. Last visit, he’d been traveling on The New Yorker’s dime. Now he was working for Point Blank, one of those publications that perfume their ads and print how-to’s on being a man of the world. It took him two minutes to tell me the move was an improvement.
“In Spanish, point blank is ‘a quemarropa.’” Katzenberg hadn’t grown tired of showing off how well he spoke the language. “The magazine doesn’t just publish ﬂuff pieces; my editor looks for serious stories. She’s a very cool mujer, a one-woman ﬁesta. Mexico is magical, but confusing. I need your help to ﬁgure out which parts are horrible and which parts are Buñuel-esque.” He tongued the ñ as if he were sucking on a silver bullet and offered me a thousand dollars.
Then I explained why I was offended.
Two years earlier, Samuel Katzenberg had come to do his bazillionth story on Frida Kahlo. Someone told him I wrote scripts for “hard-hitting” documentaries, and he’d paid me to escort him through a city he deemed savage and explain things he deemed mythical.
Katzenberg had read extensively on the heartwrenching work of Mexican painters. He knew more than I did about murals with twenty-foot-long ears of corn, the Museo de la Revolución, the assassination attempt on Trotsky, the ﬂeeting romance between Frida and the Soviet prophet during his exile in Coyoacán. Pedantically, he explained to me the importance of the “wound as a transsexual construct:” the paralyzed painter was sexy in a way that was “very postmodern, beyond gender.” Logically, Madonna admired her without understanding her.
In preparation for that ﬁrst trip, Katzenberg had interviewed professors of cultural studies at Brown, Princeton, and Duke. He had done his homework. The next step consisted of establishing deﬁnitive contact with Frida’s true country. He hired me to be his contact with the genuine. But it was hard for me to satisfy his appetite for authenticity. In his mind, everything I showed him was either a gaudy farce for tourists, or something ghastly with no local color. He wanted a reality that was like Frida’s paintings, ghastly but unique. Katzenberg didn’t understand that her famous traditional dresses were now only to be found on the second ﬂoor of the Museo de Antropología, or worn on godforsaken ranches where they were never as luxurious or ﬁnely embroidered. He also didn’t understand that today’s Mexican woman takes pains to wax the honest mustache that, according to him, made F.K. (Katzenberg loved abbreviations) a bisexual icon.
It didn’t help that nature decided to thrust an environmental disaster into his story. The volcano Popocatépetl had become active again, and we visited Frida’s mansion under a rain of ash. This let me muse with calculated nostalgia on the disappearance of the sky, so central to life in Mexico City.
“We’ve lost the most transparent region of the air,” I commented, as if pollution also meant the end of Aztec lyricism.
I’ll admit I stuffed Katzenberg full of clichés and vernacular ﬂashiness. But it was his fault. He wanted to see iguanas in the streets.
Mexico disappointed him, as if the whole country were some ceremonial site, commercialized and in ruins, full of peddlers hawking tanning oil to sun worshippers.
I introduced him to an expert on Mexican art and Katzenberg refused to talk with him. I should have quit right then; I couldn’t tolerate working for a racist. Didier Morand was black, from Senegal. He had come to Mexico when then-President Luis Echeverría decided that our countries were deeply alike. Didier wore beaded necklaces and beautiful African tunics. He was a Commissary of Mexican Art, and very few people knew as much as he did. But Katzenberg was annoyed that he’d honor so many cultures at once.
“I don’t need an African source.” He looked at me as if I were trying to sell him the wrong ethnicity.
I decided to cut him down to size: I asked for double the money.
He accepted, and so I tried my best to ﬁnd metaphors and adjectives that would bring out the essential Mexico, or something that could represent it in his eyes, so hungry for “genuine” disasters.
That’s when I introduced him to Gonzalo Erdiozábal. Gonzalo looks like a ﬁery Moor from 1940s Hollywood.
He radiates the hyperdigniﬁed elegance of a Sultan who’s lost his camels and has no plans to get them back. Or at least, that’s how we see him in Mexico. In Europe, he seems very Mexican. For four years in the 80s, he managed to get himself worshipped in Austria as Xochipili, a supposed descendent of the Emperor Moctezuma. Every morning, he’d go to the Ethnographic Museum of Vienna dressed as an Aztec dancer, light copal incense, and ask for signatures supporting the repossession of Moctezuma’s headdress, whose quetzal feathers were languishing there in a glass case.
In his role as Xochipili, Gonzalo showed the Austrian populace that what they thought of as a charmless gift from Emperor Maximilian was actually a piece of our identity. He gathered enough signatures to bring the issue to Parliament, raising funds from NGOs and winning the boundless devotion of a shifting harem of blondes. Obviously, it would have been a disaster if he’d actually repossessed the headdress. His cause only prospered so long as the Austrians postponed handing it over. He was able to enjoy his “Moctezuma fellowship” without being defeated by the generosity of his adversaries: it was nostalgia that forced him to come back before he could claim the imperial plumes (“I miss the reek of pork rinds and gasoline,” he wrote me.)
When Katzenberg doubled my salary, I called Gonzalo and offered him one third. Gonzalo cobbled together a fertility rite on a concrete rooftop, and took us to the shack of a splotchy-skinned clairvoyant who made us gnaw on sugarcane so she could read our destinies in the pulp.
Thanks to Gonzalo’s improvised traditions, Katzenberg found the local color he needed for his story. On our last night together, he had one too many tequilas and confessed that the magazine had given him an expense account fat enough to live for a month, like a king. Gonzalo and I had made it possible for him to “research” everything in just one week.
The next day, he was back to scrimping. He decided the hotel shuttle was too expensive so he ﬂagged down a parrot-green VW. The taxi driver took him down an alley and held a screwdriver to his jugular. Katzenberg was left with nothing but his passport and his plane ticket, but his ﬂight was canceled because Popocatépetl started erupting and ashes had clogged the planes’ turbines.
He spent one last day in Mexico City, watching news reports on the volcano, too scared to even go out into the hallway. He called and asked me to come see him. I was afraid he was going to ask me to give him back the money, and even more afraid I’d offer it to him. I told him I was busy because a witch had put the evil eye on me.
I felt bad for Katzenberg, long distance, until he sent me a copy of the story he’d written. The title’s vulgar pun wasn’t the worst of it: “There She Blows: Frida and the Volcano.” I was in the piece, described as “one of the locals.” Somehow, though he hadn’t deigned to dignify me with a name, Katzenberg had included every word I’d said, unhampered by quotation marks or scruples. His story was a pillage of my ideas. His only originality consisted in having discovered them himself (and only when I read the story did I realize all I had come up with). The story concluded with something I’d said about green salsa and the painful chromatics of the Mexican people. For half the price, they could have gotten the same article from me. But we live in a colonial world, and the magazine needed the august signature of Samuel Katzenberg. Plus, I don’t write articles.
The star reporter’s return to Mexico tested both my patience and my dignity. How dare he call me?
I told him I had no aspirations to protagonism; I was just sick of Americans taking advantage of us. Instead of translating Monsiváis or Mejía Madrid, they sent a cretin who got the Madonna treatment just because he wrote in English. The planet had turned into a new Babel where nobody could understand anybody else, but the important thing was to not understand anybody else in English. I thought my speech was patriotic, so I went on and on until I got scared I was sounding anti-Semitic.
“Sorry I didn’t mention you,” Katzenberg said politely on the other end of the line.
I looked out the window, towards the Parque de la Bola. A little boy had climbed up the enormous cement sphere. He spread his arms, like he was on the top of a mountain. Everyone around him clapped. The Earth had been conquered.
At night, I like to look at the middle of the trafﬁc circle we call the Parque de la Bola, the Ball Park. The ball is a globe made out of concrete. People lean out over their balconies to look at it. The world as seen by its neighbors.
My eyes wandered to the computer, covered with Post-its where I jot down “ideas.” At this point, the machine looks like a domesticated Xipe Totec, the Aztec ﬂayed god. Each “idea” is a layer of skin from Our Flayed Father. Instead of writing the script about syncretism I’d already cashed an advance on, I was constructing a monument to the topic.
Katzenberg was trying to win me over.
“The copy editors obliterated crucial adjectives; you know how cutthroat journalism is. Editors over there are not like the ones in Mexico, they’re vicious with the red pen, they change everything on you. . . . ”
While he was talking, I was thinking about Cristi Suárez. She had left an indelible message on my answering machine. “How’s it going with the script? I dreamed about you last night. A nightmare with low-budget slasher effects. You behaved yourself, though: you were the monster, not the one who was chasing me but the one who was saving me. Don’t forget we need the ﬁrst draft by Friday. Thanks for saving me. Kiss kiss.”
Listening to Cristi is a delectable destruction. I love her proposals on topics I don’t like. For her, I’ve written scripts on genetically modiﬁed corn and Brahman cattle ranching. Even though the work is a pretext to get closer to her, I still haven’t taken the ﬁnal step. And it’s because up until now, unlikely as it may sound, my best quality has been my scripts. She met me when I was horrendously drunk, but even so, or maybe because of it, she considered me capable of writing a documentary exposing the dangers of transgenic grains. Ever since, she’s talked to me as if our previous project had won an Oscar and now we were just gunning for prestige at Cannes. The latest episode of her enthusiasm led me to syncretism. “We Mexicans are pure collage,” she said. It’s hard to believe, but spoken by her, it sounded sublime.
I’d disconnected my answering machine because I wasn’t sure I could handle another message from Cristi and her magniﬁcent nightmares. Sometimes I wonder what I’d have to lose by telling her once and for all that I couldn’t care less about syncretism and the only collage I’m interested in is her. But then I remember she likes to take care of people. She thinks of herself as a nurse. Maybe the scripts are the therapy she’s assigned to me and all she wants is for me to take my medicine. But the good monster thing sounds racy, almost pornographic. Although it would be more pornographic if she congratulated me on being the bad monster. The soul of a woman is a complicated thing.
Yes, I disconnected the answering machine to erase any record of the voice that obsessed me. When the phone rang twenty times, I couldn’t help wondering what kind of psychopath was trying to get hold of me. That’s how I ended up talking to Katzenberg again.
He was still on the line. He had run out of polite phrases and was waiting for my response.
I looked in my wallet: two green 200-peso notes, with traces of cocaine (not enough). The sight alone convinced me, but Katzenberg still made an emotional appeal:
“This isn’t the ﬁrst time they’ve asked me to come back to Mexico. Believe it or not, the Frida story was a hit. I didn’t want to come back, and a colleague, an anti-Semitic Irishman who was trying to fuck my girlfriend, spread the rumor that I didn’t want to come back because I’d done something dirty. It wouldn’t be the ﬁrst time a gringo reporter got into trouble with the narcotrafﬁckers or the DEA.”
“You came back to clear your name?” I asked.
“Yes,” he answered, humbly.
I told him I was not “one of the locals.” If he wanted to refer to me, he’d have to use my name. It was a question of principles and the proper attribution of sources. Then I asked him for three thousand dollars.
There was a silence on the other end of the line. I thought Katzenberg was doing calculations, but he had already moved on to the subject of his story.
“How violent is Mexico City, really?”
I remembered something Burroughs wrote to Kerouac or Ginsberg or some other big-time addict who wanted to come to Mexico but was scared he’d get jumped.
“Don’t worry: Mexicans only kill their friends.
Those days, the only interesting thing in Mexico City was Keiko’s farewell. On Sundays, divorced fathers depend heavily on zoos and aquariums. I got in the habit of taking Tania to Adventure Kingdom, the theme park that we thought of as a whale sanctuary.
I decided to spend the morning with Tania, watching the whale swim in powerful circles (my daughter, more accurately, referred to it as an “orca”) and in the afternoon I’d look for attractive, violent settings with Katzenberg. That wouldn’t be easy. All the spots I’ve been mugged are too ordinary.
One thing was still unresolved: when would I write that ﬁrst draft for Cristi?
While I tried to salvage some cocaine dust from a bill with Sor Juana’s face on it, I came up with an ontological excuse for my block. What was the point of writing scripts in a country where the Cineteca Theaters exploded while they were showing The Promised Land? I remembered the problem we’d had with an extra who got beat up in a scene, and my script had him say “Aggh!” The union decided that since the victim had a speaking part, he should be paid as an actor instead of an extra. After that, my victims died in silence.
Anyway, I’ve never seen the slightest resemblance between what I imagine and the handsome stud or bottle blonde who garbles my words onscreen.
“Why don’t you write a novel?” Renata asked me once. We were still married then and she was still willing to change me for my own sake, starting with imagining me as a novelist. “In novels, special effects are free and the characters aren’t unionized. All that counts is your inner world.”
I’ll never forget that phrase. A time actually existed when Renata believed in my inner world. As she spoke those words, she looked at me, with the honey-colored eyes that Tania unfortunately didn’t inherit, as if I were a landscape: interesting, but a little out of focus.
None of the accusations she hurled at me later nor any of the ﬁghts that led to our divorce hurt me as much as that generous expectation. Her trust was more devastating than the critics. Renata saw in me possibilities I never possessed.
In scripts, “INT” refers to the interior, and mine is decorated with sofas. That’s as deep as I go. Anything else is the delusion of a woman who made a mistake searching for depths in me, and who hurt me by believing I was capable of plumbing them myself.
I called Gonzalo Erdiozóbal to ask him to take care of the script. He doesn’t write, but his life is like a documentary on syncretism. Before Vienna, he was a veteran of university theater productions (he’d recited Hamlet’s monologues waist-deep in a very memorable swamp), he was involved in a freshwater shrimp farming project in Río Pánuco, he left a woman and two children in Saltillo, he ﬁnanced a video about Monarch butterﬂies, and he launched a website to give voice to the 62 indigenous communities of Mexico. Plus, Gonzalo is a marvel of practicality. He ﬁxes motors he’s never seen before and makes delicious dishes with surprising ingredients he ﬁnds in my pantry. His zest for pioneering and love of hobbies are a little annoying, but in times of desperation, there’s nothing better. When Renata and I separated, he ignored my pathetic attempts to isolate myself and visited me habitually. He would show up with magazines, videos, and a very hard to ﬁnd Caribbean rum.
I called Gonzalo and he said he’d never thought about writing a script, which meant yes. I felt so relieved that I got carried away talking. I told him about Katzenberg and his return to Mexico, but he wasn’t interested in the journalist’s news. He wanted to talk about other things. An old friend from university theater was producing one of Genet’s plays in a gymnasium. When Gonzalo describes them, scenes run the risk of lasting as long as they do in real life. I hung up the phone.
I went to pick up Tania. The city was plastered with pictures of the whale. Mexico City is a wonderful place for breeding pandas—the ﬁrst panda born outside of China was born here—but orcas need more space to start a family. That’s why Keiko was leaving. I explained this to my daughter while we waited for one of the goodbye performances to start in Adventure Kingdom’s gigantic tank.
Tania had just learned the word “sinister” and she was ﬁnding many uses for it. We should have been happy; Keiko would have babies off in the depths. Tania gave me a cross-eyed look. I thought she was going to say it was sinister. I pulled out a picture book she had in her backpack and started to read it to her. It was about carnivorous carrots. She didn’t think that was sinister at all.
The whale had been trained to say good-bye to the Mexican people. He waved adiós with his ﬂipper while we sang “The Swallows.” A ten-trumpet mariachi band played with enormous sadness, and the singer exclaimed,
“I’m not crying! My eyes are just sweating!”
I confess, I got choked up in spite of myself. I silently cursed Katzenberg, incapable of appreciating the richness of Mexican kitsch. He only paid to see violence.
Keiko leapt from the water one last time. He seemed to smile in a threatening way, with very pointed teeth. On our way out, I bought Tania an inﬂatable whale.
There were forest ﬁres outside of Ajusco. The ashes brought night on prematurely. From the hill Adventure Kingdom was built on, the city’s ﬁlthy skin glinted like mica. The perfect backdrop for Cristi’s dreams of a good monster.
We got onto the highway without saying a word. I’m sure Tania was thinking about Keiko and the family he would have to travel so far to ﬁnd.
I dropped Tania off at Renata’s house and headed to Los Alcatraces. When I got to the table, it was four in the afternoon. Katzenberg had already eaten.
I’d chosen the restaurant carefully; it was perfect for torturing Katzenberg. I knew he’d thank me for taking him to a genuine locale. They were blasting ranchera music, the chairs had that toyshop color-scheme we Mexicans encounter only in “traditional” joints, there were six spicy salsas on the table and the menu offered three kinds of insects. All calamities picturesque enough for my companion to suffer them as “experiences.”
Baldness had gained ground on Katzenberg’s scalp. He was dressed like a Woolworth’s shopper, sporting a shirt with checks in three different colors and a watch with a see-through band. His little eyes, intensely blue, darted around. Eyes faster than ﬂies, on the lookout for an exclusive.
He ordered decaf. They brought him the only coffee they had: café de olla, with cinnamon and panela sugar. He barely sipped it. He wanted to be careful about food. He felt a throbbing in his temples, a little sound going bing-bing.
“It’s the altitude,” I assured him. “No one can digest anything at 7500 feet.”
He told me about his recent problems. Some colleagues were jealous of him, others hated him for no apparent reason. He had been lucky enough to visit places where conﬂicts broke out on his arrival and it got him incredible scoops. He was the ﬁrst one to document the forced relocations in Rwanda, the Kurdish genocide, the toxic gas leak at the Union Carbide factory in India. Everywhere he went, he’d won prizes and made enemies. He felt his adversaries breathing down his neck. We were the same age, 38, but he’d aged in subtle ways, as if he’d crossed all of Africa with no air conditioning. I thought I sensed a bit of pathological lying in the precise enumeration of his grievances. According to him, nobody had forgiven him for being in Berlin the day the wall came down, or for having run into Vargas Llosa in a shirt shop in Paris a week after he’d lost the elections in Peru. I ﬁgured he was one of those investigative reporters who brag about the facts they’ve dug up but lie about their birthdate. Many of the conﬂicts he’d had with the press must have been sparked by the way he got his stories, taking advantage of people like me.
He eyed the neighboring tables.
“I didn’t want to come back to Mexico,” he said in a low voice.
Was it possible that someone hardened by coups d’état and radioactive clouds was afraid of the Mexican way of life?
I’d ordered empipianadas. Katzenberg looked at my plate as he spoke, as if he were drawing conviction from the thick, green sauce.
“It’s an elusive thing. Evil is transcendent here. People don’t cause harm just because. Evil means something. It was hell, hell that Lawrence Durrell and Malcolm Lowry found in this country. It’s a miracle they got out alive. They came into contact with overpowering energies.”
Just then, they brought me a clay jug of hibiscus water. The handle had broken off and been taped back on. I gestured at the jug:
“In Mexico, evil is improvised. Don’t worry, Samuel.”
Katzenberg’s paranoid side was much more likeable. He wasn’t the overbearing lion of New Journalism he’d been on his last trip. Whether it was real or imagined, all this intrigue was having a positive effect on him. Now he wanted to write his story and get out fast.
I spoke like only a screenwriter would:
“Is there something I should know?”
He answered like one of my characters:
“What part of what you know don’t you understand?”
“You’re a nervous wreck. Are you in trouble?
“I already told you about that.”
“Are you in trouble you haven’t told me about?”
“If I don’t tell you something, it’s for the good of the mission.”
“‘The mission.’ You sound like a DEA agent.”
“Come on,” he said, very amused. “I have to protect my source, that’s all. I’ll tell you what you need to know. You’re my Deep Throat. I don’t want to lose you.”
“Is there something you haven’t told me?”
“Yes. Remember the anti-Semitic Irishman?”
“The one who wanted to fuck your girlfriend?”
“That’s right. He wanted to fuck my girlfriend because he had already fucked my wife.”
“They just named him foreign news editor of Point Blank. He knows I haven’t been very rigorous with my sources. There’s already a price on my head. He’s waiting for the tiniest slipup so he can jump on me.”
“I thought everyone hated you because you got to Rwanda ﬁrst.”
“There’s some of that, too, but with this guy it’s all about his uncircumcised dick. Us goddamn gringos have personal problems too. Can you understand that, güey?”
“You speak Spanish too well. Everyone here ends up thinking you’re CIA.”
“I lived here for four years, from 12 to 16, I told you that. I went to school in Mixcoac. Are you going to trust me or not? We need a pact, a marriage of convenience,” he smiled.
“They don’t teach you to say ‘marriage of convenience’ at The Mixcoac School.”
“There are dictionaries, don’t be a jerk. In Mixcoac, I learned what you learn in any high school: to say güey, man.” He looked at me, his eyes two blue sparks. “Can you understand that I feel like shit, even though I’m paying you three thousand dollars?”
We made peace. I wanted to reward him with some quotidian horror of Mexico in this, the year 2000. I borrowed his phone and dialed up Pancho, a dealer I’ve considered trustworthy ever since he said to me, “If you want to see the devil smile, give me a call.”
Pancho had me meet him two streets away from Los Alcatraces, in the parking lot of an Oxxo minimart. I wanted Katzenberg to see a coke deal, as simple and cheap as ordering Domino’s. Routine crime.
Pancho showed up in a grey Camaro, with his little girls in the back. He walked up to my car window, leaned over, dropped a folded-up piece of paper, and pocketed the 200 pesos I palmed him.
“Take care of yourself,” he said, an alarming sentiment coming from someone with trembling ﬁngers, a wasted visage, papery skin. Pancho’s face was the best antidote against his drugs. The devil wasn’t smiling at him. Or maybe that’s his secret and bewitching charm, like some poorly-embalmed Phoenician king. Samuel Katzenberg eyed him greedily, extracting adjectives from that ravaged face.
I went into the Oxxo to buy cigarettes. I was at the register when a fast-moving shadow crossed my ﬁeld of vision. I thought the store was being robbed. But the guy behind the counter looked more curious than horriﬁed. He was watching something going on outside. I turned to look at the parking lot. Katzenberg was being dragged out of my car by a guy in a ski-mask, a Glock held to his head. A second guy in a ski-mask got out of the rear seat of my car, as if he had been searching for something back there. He turned to face all of us watching from inside the store:
We didn’t need to see him ﬁre. The minute we heard him we dropped to the ground. I went down surrounded by cans, boxes, and a rain of glass. The shot shattered the front window. A second shot shook the building and kept us ﬂoored for ﬁve minutes.
When I got out of the Oxxo, the doors of my car were still open, infusing it with the helplessness of recently vandalized vehicles. As for Katzenberg, all that remained was a button torn off his jacket in the struggle.
There was a chemical smell, and a cloud of colored smoke drifted towards the sky. The second shot had shattered the two X’s of the neon Oxxo sign. Strangely, the other letters were still lit: two glowing circles like drunken eyes.
Lieutenant Natividad Carmona had very speciﬁc ideas:
“If you chew, you think better.”
He handed me a pack of blue raspberry gum.
I took one even though I didn’t want it.
I sat in the patrol car, an artiﬁcial taste in my mouth.
From the passenger’s seat, Martín Palencia informed his partner:
“El Tamale snuffed it.”
Carmona made no comment. I didn’t know who El Tamale was, but seeing the news of his death received with such indifference terriﬁed me.
It had taken me a while to react to Katzenberg’s kidnapping. That’s what happens when you have a slip full of cocaine in your pocket. What do you do when you hear sirens approaching? Pancho sold top-notch product; it would be a crime to dump it.
After searching through my car (in vain, of course), I’d gone back into the Oxxo and headed for the cans of powdered milk. I picked one for infants with acid reﬂux, the brand that saved Tania when she was a newborn. I pulled off the plastic cap and slipped the paper between the cap and the metal seal. With a little luck, I’d be able to get it back the next day. That milk is a luxury item.
When I got back to the car, there were two cops on the scene. They made a big show of opening the glove compartment and pulling out a baggie of marijuana. While I’d been hiding the coke, they’d been planting this lesser drug in my car. They didn’t need it to take me down to the station, but they decided to soften me up just in case. I was about to slip them a bill (with traces of something more incriminating than marijuana on it) when a ratgray car with lights on its roof screeched to a stop in front of us, its brakes squealing in that magniﬁcent way police cars never seem to pull off in Mexican movies.
That’s how I met ofﬁcers Natividad Carmona and Martín Palencia. They had ferrety hair and manicured ﬁngernails. As I watched them go over the car with deadbeat delight, I noticed a scar on Carmona’s forehead and, much more worrying, a Rolex on Palencia’s wrist. They treated the uniformed cops with utter disdain. They found my Screenwriters Guild I.D. and the bag of marijuana. I was surprised at how easily they broke it down.
“Look, Daddy-O,” Carmona said to one of the cops, “you really think a ﬁlmmaker’s going to get high on skunk weed like this?” He gestured at me and his voice took on a respectful tone: “The artist is into much ﬁner things.” He handed the bag to the cop. “Take that shit away.”
The grunt cops took their hopes of extortion elsewhere. I was left in the hands of the Law, trained to sniff out my drug habits from my screenwriter ID.
We were in the parking lot for hours. The ofﬁcers called Katzenberg’s hotel, Interpol, the DEA, and the consular ofﬁcer at the United States Embassy. Their efﬁ-ciency turned terrifying when they said,
“Let’s go to the holding cells.”
I got into the patrol car. It smelled new. The dashboard seemed to have more lights and buttons than were really necessary.
“How close are you and Mr. Katzenberg?” asked Carmona.
I told him what I knew, speaking quickly and stumbling over my words, wanting to ﬁll each sentence with sincerity.
We drove through a neighborhood of low houses. It had rained in this part of the city. Every time we pulled up next to a car, the driver would pretend we weren’t there. I’ve been in that situation hundreds of times: not looking at the Law, trying to pretend it is invisible and will continue along its inscrutable parallel course.
Where could Katzenberg be? Holed up in some shantytown, gagged in some safehouse? I imagined him being dragged by his kidnappers in a series of confusing shots: a back pushing forward into a roiling fog; a body with its hands tied, already lifeless, being dragged through the dirt; a corpse on its way to becoming anonymous, just a faceless victim, the product of a random misunderstanding; an inert mass, licked eagerly by feral dogs.
I imagined an atrocious end for Samuel Katzenberg to avoid thinking about my own. Thirty-eight years in the city is enough to know that a trip to the “holding cells” doesn’t always come with a return ticket. But there are exceptions, I thought. People who make it through a week eating newspaper in a ditch, people who survive ﬁfteen ice pick wounds, people who are electrocuted in bathtubs full of cold water and live to tell the tale, though nobody believes them. I tried to reassure myself by thinking about hideous possibilities in great detail. I imagined myself deformed but alive, ready to terrify Tania with my embrace. Horrendous, but with the right to a future. Then I wondered if Renata would cry at my funeral. No, she wouldn’t even show up at the wake; she wouldn’t be able to handle my mother hugging her and saying sad, tender words meant to console her for being guilty for my death.
I wouldn’t have sunk into such melodrama if I’d been in clear danger. The patrol car smelled good, I was chewing blue raspberry gum, we were driving along calmly, obeying stoplights. But in some basement somewhere, El Tamale had snuffed it.
“So you’re a ﬁlmmaker, then?” Martín Palencia asked suddenly.
“I write screenplays.”
“Let me ask you this. That Buñuel did every fucking drug, didn’t he? I have a ton of movies at home, the pirated stuff we’ve conﬁscated from the Tepito black market. All due respect, but I think Buñuel was balls deep. You can tell he was a total druggie, a total visionary. For me, he’s the Boss, the Boss of Bosses, like the Tigres del Norte say, the kingpin of cinema, the only one who really and truly had square balls.” Palencia gestured wildly in support of his theory, and his eyes twinkled, as if he had already spent a lot of time trying to explain this. “Let an old man like that do whatever drugs he wants! I always say, Shakespeare was a fag, what the fuck do I care? Those motherfuckers are creating, creating, creating.” He shook his head hard from side to side; the gesture suggested coke or amphetamines. “Do you remember that one that Buñuel did where two chicks are just one chick? They’re both hot as hell, but they’re different, they don’t look a damn thing alike, but an old guy mixes them up, that’s how fucked up he is. And neither of them give it up. Those damn girls get hotter and hotter. It’s like the old guy was seeing double. It makes you want to be as confused as him. That’s surrealism, right? It’d be frickin’ cool to live all surrealist!” He paused, and after a deep sigh, asked me, “So what was it, what was Maestro Buñuel into?”
“He liked martinis.”
“I told you, partner!” Palencia clapped Carmona on the back.
6. The Hamster
After a ride prolonged by a ﬁlmic discussion in which Palencia tried to convince Carmona that surrealism was hotter than porn, they left me with an ofﬁcial in the D.A.’s ofﬁce.
The functionary asked me ﬁfty questions. He asked if I had an alias, and if I had engaged in “sexual commerce” with the kidnapped party.
The tough part of the interrogation wasn’t the questions but the way they were repeated, barely modiﬁed, to expose any discrepancies. Asked in a different order or in a different tone, the questions suddenly implied something else. They made it seem like I knew about things before they had happened, like I had intuited or even planned them.
I worried about Katzenberg. I had brought him to the Oxxo, so I deserved some of the blame for what had transpired. But something stronger, something distant, dangerous, untraceable, had taken control of him. Would they come after me too? Right now, all I cared about was answering those questions that kept transforming with each repetition. At two in the morning, they let me go.
When I got to my apartment, I collapsed onto the bed, thinking about the cocaine I’d left in the Oxxo. I passed out in my clothes and plunged into a deep sleep, in which I felt the occasional brush of a ﬂipper.
I woke up at eight a.m. and looked out the window at the streets that surround the Parque de la Bola. Then I checked my answering machine. Two messages. Cristi’s voice exploded with enthusiasm through the speaker: “The script’s a knockout! You’re the best. I know compliments are out of style in this post-modern world, don’t be offended, but you make me want to be old-fashioned. I’m dying to see you. Kiss kiss! Alright, a hundred kisses.” Cristi was exultant. I didn’t know that Gonzalo Erdiozábal had sent her the script, nor did I remember giving him Cristi’s fax number. Although, honestly, I didn’t remember much of anything. The second message said: “Get over here right now. Tania is screaming bloody murder.” (My ex-wife always talked to me like our daughter was a burning building and I was 911.)
I had a slice of pound cake and a cigarette for breakfast and left for Renata’s place. On the ride over, I thought about Cristi. Her enthusiastic voice, her desire to be old-fashioned. An incredible thing in such a disastrous moment. I wondered if she would ever use that magnificent voice to demand that I come pick up our daughter. Gonzalo had always been a great friend. Now I knew he was also a better screenwriter.
Tania seemed pretty calm when I got there. Renata, on the other hand, glared at me as if she was reading the most abominable crimes all over my face. She shook her hands around like she was trying to swat a cloud of fruit ﬂies. Then she explained the problem: Tania’s hamster Lobito had gotten lost in the Chevrolet, the run-down piece of crap that’s caused us so many problems and is rolling proof that the alimony I send her is bare-bones. She pointed at the car: a chance for me to do my part, problems men should ﬁx.
I searched the car for the hamster, imitating some of the expert moves I’d seen the detectives use. The only thing I found was a tortoiseshell brooch shaped like an inﬁnity symbol. Renata had been wearing it when I met her. It was just as hard for me to believe such thin, translucent material could come from a turtle as it was to believe my ﬁngers had once unpinned it from her. Now the clasp was stuck—or my ﬁngers had lost the touch.
I decided to bring some specialists in on the search for Lobito. Tania went with me to the Chevrolet dealership. A mechanic in a white lab coat listened blankly to my request, as if customers came by every day with rodents lost in the chassis of their cars.
“Wait in Customer Service.” He pointed to a glass-walled rectangle.
There we went. The nation’s waiting rooms have ﬁlled up with televisions; we sat and watched a commercial for the government that I found especially repugnant because I was the one who’d written it. For a full minute, it shows an imaginary country where four cinderblock walls count for a classroom and the president smiles, satisﬁed with his achievements. The message couldn’t be any more contradictory: poverty seems to be simultaneously resolved and undefeatable. The shot pulls out to show a barren landscape. It’s as if the government were saying, “We’ve done what little we could.” The last image is a miserable little boy with his mouth open under an eyedropper. Executive authority lets a single, provident drop fall in.
I kept my eyes closed until Tania tugged on my pants. The man in the white coat had Lobito in his hands:
“We had to take apart the back seat.” He handed Tania her pet. “We found this, too.” He passed me a tennis ball that had lost its bright lime color in the dark recesses of the car.
I took it with trembling hands. Its fuzzy texture triggered unsettling memories: Gonzalo Erdiozábal, unrepentant faker, had betrayed me.
7. The Blesséd Baby Mechanic
In the Eighties, Renata had wanted to live unhindered, but she also needed a car. Though she hated the idea of a man protecting her, she let her father buy her a Chevrolet. For a few weeks, she felt like a traitor and a dependent. She kept throwing her three little I Ching coins into the air but she couldn’t ﬁnd any metaphors to reassure her.
Always happy to help a friend, and to have an excuse to make his generosity a performance, Gonzalo Erdiozábal convinced her to get the car blessed in a traditional rite: “Daddy’s present” could be transformed into a “sacramental ride.”
Gonzalo had such an intense way of being incoherent that we accepted his plan. We would go see a priest known for blessing taxis on the day of St. Christopher, patron saint of travelers. The church was very far away, but it would be worth it to take a little trip, try something different for a change.
Renata never wanted to baptize Tania. But pulling up to the Anthropology Department in a brand new car made her feel guilty; an automotive baptism seemed like her chance to mix a bourgeois gift with a socially commended act.
Gonzalo appointed himself godfather. He showed up at our house with a cooler full of beer and snacks from the Tlalpan market.
We went to the outer limits of the city, and even that far out, amazingly, the city kept going. We got lost more than once along the way. Nobody seemed to have heard of the parish, and we kept getting contradictory directions until ﬁnally we saw a taxi decked out for a party, covered with crepe-paper ﬂowers, and decided to follow it.
When we got there, dozens of taxis were waiting to be baptized. In the back was the chapel with its little marshmallow-blue towers, like a kindergarten converted into a church.
“Do you think they’ll baptize a car if it’s not a taxi?” Renata asked.
“That’s the important thing: not being a taxi, and being here,” Gonzalo spoke like a guru of the hybrid world.
He hired a trio of mariachis to play for us while we waited. We sat listening to boleros, and after my fourth beer, I started to feel bad for my friend. I’ve left out a crucial detail: Gonzalo was desperately, shamelessly in love with Renata. His ﬂirting was so obvious that it didn’t even bother me. While we listened to a bolero proposing a million ways to suffer from love, I thought about the emptiness that deﬁned Gonzalo’s life and determined his ever-shifting hobbies, how every year for him was constant forward-motion, constant ﬂight.
There was the occasional woman. None lasted long enough to knit him a vest in psychedelic colors or for him to master a new yoga pose. Renata had been a perpetually- postponed horizon, a way to justify his empty ﬂings.
Waiting in line, I felt intensely sorry for Gonzalo and told him the sorts of things that you say in between romantic songs, until the chords come back in to collect their due.
The trio ran out of songs before we reached the chapel. When we were ﬁnally just three taxis away, they told us that the water had run out, too, not only in the church but in the whole neighborhood.
We looked at the priest’s dry holy water sprinkler. The wind sent newspapers and plastic bags into the sky.
Renata resigned herself to the idea of driving a car in limbo and parking in the Anthropology Department without having gone through a vernacular rite.
Gonzalo was drunk by then and entirely committed to being our automotive godfather. He told us to wait for him, and disappeared down a dirt road.
We went into the church. On a side altar, we saw the Blesséd Baby Mechanic. His cross was a lug wrench; he was swaddled in a denim jumpsuit. The little pink face, with its fuchsia cheeks, was sloppily painted.
The altar was surrounded by painted tin votive offerings giving thanks for highway miracles and tiny cars the taxi drivers left as offerings.
We went out into the atrium and stood under the last rays of afternoon sun.
Gonzalo had set off with the look of one possessed. I pitied his solitude, his vicarious passion for Renata, his useless costume changes.
A loud bang and a cloud of dust announced his return. He pulled up, hanging out the cab of an Electropura Puriﬁed Water delivery truck. The glass bottles sparkled blue in the setting sun.
Up to that point the image was epic, or at least bizarre. When we got closer, it became criminal: Gonzalo was threatening the driver with the metal pin-punch he used to carve Peace & Love signs into balsa wood. When he got out of the truck, his face had the deformed look of the demented.
The priest refused to perform the sacrament with stolen water.
Gonzalo showed him a ﬁstful of bills:
“He refused to sell me a bottle.”
“I’m not authorized to go off my route,” said the truck driver, in a slavish tone closed to all suggestions.
“This water has already been suffused with sin,” declared the priest.
In the dusty air, the bottles shone like treasure.
“Please!” Gonzalo got down on his knees with a grand pathos directed as much at the truck driver as the priest.
Two taxi drivers helped us get him into the car. He didn’t speak the whole ride back. Our outlandish Saturday fun had turned into something shameful. More than anything, it was awful to be unable to console our friend. After my most embarrassing coke-fueled episodes, he’d told me, “Don’t worry, it happens to everyone.” Effectively, anyone could become a lamentable addict. I couldn’t say the same thing to him. His loss of control was unique.
I walked him to the door of his building. He hugged me tightly. I could smell his sour sweat.
“I’m sorry, I’m a terrible friend,” he mumbled. Obviously, I thought he was referring to our absurd
expedition to the St. Christopher church. Years later, the tennis ball found under the back seat would tie things together differently.
8. The Motto
A few weeks before the failed baptism, we spent a weekend with several other couples at the hacienda of Giménez Luque, a millionaire friend of ours. Even though our host was the only one who really knew how to swing a racquet, the tennis court drew us in like an attainable oasis. More than a few balls went sailing over the metal grille that enclosed the court. But only one of them matters: the one Renata and Gonzalo went after. They came back more than an hour later, empty-handed. They’d looked everywhere for it, but couldn’t ﬁgure out where it had gone. Renata was ﬂushed. She chewed obsessively at a hang-nail on her index ﬁnger.
Now I knew the truth: they hadn’t lost the ball in the ﬁeld outside the court, they’d lost it in the back seat of the Chevrolet, from where they’d just emerged. The same spot my comb had fallen into when Renata and I had made love in the Leones Desert! Lobito had ended up in the very same place.
Could it be some other ball? Absolutely not. The number of lost tennis balls in the world is impossible to imagine. But the feeling I had when I touched the fuzz of that ball, so recently exposed, was irrefutable.
Plus, there were other clues. My relationship with Renata had begun to cool around the same time. She didn’t want to make love to me at the hacienda. Her hands avoided mine.
Renata was never interested in tennis again, after that. It’s possible that she was no longer interested in Gonzalo, either. I can’t ﬁnd any later connections between them. In a way, she divorced both of us. She couldn’t imagine one friend without the other. Gonzalo was, for her, what he had been so many times for others, and for himself: a ﬁt of passion, essential and brief.
Either way, Gonzalo had crossed the line into being a complete son of a bitch. When he apologized to me outside his house, he wasn’t referring to the ridiculousness of that Saturday, but to a betrayal he couldn’t speak.
The tennis ball burned in my hand. I was so enraged I couldn’t think about anything else for the rest of the day. I forgot the cocaine I had left in the Oxxo. I forgot Katzenberg had disappeared. I forgot that Tania’s inﬂatable whale needed a tank.
I tried in vain to ﬁnd Erdiozábal. I set the Post-its covering my computer on ﬁre, one by one, just to do something. They burned like sacriﬁcial skins, but I didn’t feel any better.
I ﬂipped through magazines. In a Rolling Stone from two years ago, I found an interview with Katzenberg I hadn’t seen before. The reporter asked him, “What’s your motto?” Curiously, he had one: “Float in the depths.” Maybe that’s what being successful means, having a motto. I burned the last yellow Post-it and went out into the street.
The Parque de la Bola wasn’t the best place to clear my mind. Martín Palencia, the surreal-cineﬁle detective, was there. He was holding the sports section and a cappuccino in a Styrofoam cup. He’d been just about to take a little break before knocking on my door. My arrival ruined it for him.
He talked reluctantly about the things they’d found in Katzenberg’s hotel room: notes on violence, “express kidnapping”, ATM “milking,” people who’d been “trunked” in cars. What did I know about it? I told him Katzenberg had wanted to write about sinister things but hadn’t yet run into any; his editors in New York were demanding he ﬁnd something horrifying in Mexico, an atrocity theme-park.
Palencia sipped his cappuccino, absorbed in his own thoughts.
I remembered Katzenberg’s pretentious motto. Now he’d need it for real. Would he be able to ﬂoat in the depths he’d fallen into? I repeated what I knew, which was almost nothing.
Palencia mentioned with pointed interest that the word “Buñuel-esque” appeared in Katzenberg’s notes. Was it a clue, or what?
“When a gringo journalist ﬁnds something ‘Buñuelesque’ in Mexico, it means that he saw something horrible he thought was magical.”
“Doesn’t it occur to you that this could be a conspiracy?” He suddenly switched to the informal, threateningly: “The gringo was here to see you, don’t forget. If you get cute, you’re gonna get fucked. Do you remember the Buñuel ﬁlm, The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz?”
“Yes,” I answered, to hurry along the dialogue.
“Remember what happens to the blonde’s mannequin: it gets burned to a crisp. Then the leading lady gets burned to a crisp. Blondes who don’t talk end up in ﬂames, sweetheart.”
I wanted to make my exit, but Palencia stopped me:
“Don’t get lost, now.” He touched my cheek with homicidal affection.
I went back to my building. Cristi was standing at the door.
“Sorry for dropping by unannounced. I was dying to see you.” Her eyes sparkled more than usual; she ran her hand through her hair nervously. “I’m not always like this, really.”
We went up to my apartment. The ﬁrst thing she did was look at my computer, recently cleared of its Post-it leaf litter.
“I love the idea you start the script with: the computer covered in Post-its, like a modern-day Xipe Totec. You can feel the desperation of the screenwriter and the contemporary manifestation of syncretism. But I’m not here to get pedantic.” She took my hand.
Gonzalo Erdiozábal had made me the protagonist of his script. His abusive imagination never ceased to amaze me, but I couldn’t go on thinking. Cristi’s lips were grazing mine.
The classy thing would have been to forget my 200 pesos’ worth of cocaine, but I went back to the Oxxo prepared to go through every single can of acid-reﬂux formula. Not a single one was left.
“The pollution gives babies reﬂux,” the cashier told me. “We never have enough cans.”
Gonzalo was just as impossible to ﬁnd as my cocaine. I left him multiple messages. In return, he recorded a terse message on my answering machine: “I’ve been running around like crazy. I’m going to Chiapas with some Swedish Human Rights guys. Good luck with the script.”
At that point, we hadn’t heard anything about Keiko, either. Had he reached the open sea yet? I made the mistake of going back to Adventure Kingdom with Tania. A listless dolphin was swimming circles in the tank.
Now I was worried about Katzenberg and afraid that Palencia would return to make me the fall guy for a crime I knew nothing about. But what I was most distressed about, I admit, was not knowing what “I” had written. Cristi loved the personality Gonzalo had captured in the script.
I knew she had an exquisite mole halfway down her ribs, and a unique way of ﬂicking her tongue in my ear, but I didn’t know how I had wooed her. Even though she insisted she’d been into me from the beginning, it was the script that really did it. Plus, the script let her feel like she’d had a hand in the way I’d opened up: she had suggested the topic. Her pride seemed well-deserved to me. I just needed to ﬁnd out what her admiration was based on. She quoted phrases from the script with such frequency that when she said “God is a concept by which we measure our pain,” I thought it was something that “I” had written. She had to explain, with humiliating pedantry, that she was quoting John Lennon.
Either Gonzalo’s text was very long, or my interior was very sparse. According to Cristi, it showed me in my entirety. She was especially amazed by my bravery in confessing my ﬂaws and my emotional shortcomings. It was admirable that I’d been able to overcome them through Mexican syncretism: “I” represented the country with astonishing sincerity.
Cristi was in love with the suffering, convincing character created by Gonzalo, the shadow of which I tried to imitate without a script to follow. Would it be going too far to ask Cristi for a copy?
I began a vague program of personal reform. Spurred by the mysterious virtues Cristi attributed to me, I cut back on sordid mornings with bills up my nose. Life without coke isn’t easy, but little by little I was convincing myself to be a different man, complete with sudden tics and old-fashioned courtesy, to distinguish me from the absurd person I had been so far.
The Katzenberg case was still open, and I had to go back to the Police Headquarters. My statements were counter-checked against the ones given by the other witnesses and the Oxxo cashier. A one-eyed agent took down everything we said. He wrote incredibly quickly, as if he had access to abilities beyond the grasp of people with two eyes.
When compared, our statements—mangled, dubious, reticent—gave a violent sense of unreality, of almost purposeful contradictions. There were discrepancies in time and points of view. It didn’t do any good for me to say, “In this country, nobody knows anything.”
They detained me longer than the others. After seven hours, one fact became clearer and clearer in my mind until it ﬁt within the judicial range of “evidence:” when we left Los Alcatraces, I had used Katzenberg’s phone to tell Pancho we were on our way. Then I’d left it in the back seat of the car. I hadn’t given it back to him. That’s what the second kidnapper was looking for. They wanted Katzenberg with his phone.
I was excited to ﬁnd a missing piece amidst the chaos, but I didn’t tell the one-eyed agent. The phone was proof of my ties to cocaine trafﬁcking.
I was exhausted, but Ofﬁcer Martín Palencia still wanted to talk to me. Natividad Carmona stood a few feet away, watching and eating a green Jell-O.
“Take a look.” He showed me a Barbie doll. “This is one of the ones assembled in Tuxtepec, but they put Made in China on them. It was in Mr. Katzenberg’s room. Do you know why?
“A gift for his daughter, I guess.”
“Would you buy a Barbie in Mexico if you were a gringo? This is really getting to be like The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz, oh, yes, it is.”
Palencia came over to me:
“Look, sweet thing. You can be a ﬁlmmaker without being a whore. I’m not at the point where I want you to suck my cock, but if you gave weird information to your gringo daddy, you’re gonna regret it. Bad girls get real fucked.” He opened the Barbie’s legs; his index ﬁnger looked like an enormous penis. “I don’t want to have to tear you in half, dolly girl.” It was clear he wasn’t talking to the Barbie.
When they ﬁnally let me go, Carmona was chewing on an orange peel.
Two days later a blonde entered the scene, though not the kind that Palencia was expecting. Sharon came to Mexico to look for her husband. She came in shorts, like she was visiting the palm-tree tropics. That outﬁt, and every other outﬁt of hers I saw, was quite unﬂattering on someone that overweight. On her feet, the reluctant Nikes didn’t seem sporty so much as orthopedic.
I had a late breakfast with Sharon and left with a headache. She was annoyed that there were so many smoking tables, that the music was so loud, that televisions were omnipresent decorations. All of that annoys me too, but I don’t get hysterical about it. She was surprised that we Mexicans only know about yellow American cheese (apparently there’s also a white one, much healthier) and that I couldn’t tell her which of the three rolls they offered us had the most ﬁber. Her nutritional obsessions were pathological (considering how fat she was) and her cultural habits were put on no less severe a diet. To make conversation, I asked if her husband’s kidnapping was being reported on CNN.
“Television is the same as a frontal lobotomy. I never watch it,” she responded.
From the little she had seen of Mexico City, she was convinced we don’t respect the blind. I told her the best way to tolerate this city is to be blind, but she didn’t appreciate the joke.
“I’m talking about the handicapped,” she said solemnly. “There are no ramps. Crossing a street is a savage act.”
Even though she was right, it annoyed me that she’d make generalizations like that, having seen so few streets. I fell into a stony silence. She showed me the latest issue of Point Blank, with an article on Katzenberg: “Missing: Desaparecido.”
I already disliked Sharon so much that I had no problem reading right in front of her. Between childhood photos and the testimonies of his friends, the journalist was evoked as a martyr to freedom of expression, meeting his end in a lawless wilderness. Mexico City provided a harrowing background for the article, a labyrinth ruled by petty tyrants and gods that should have never crawled out of the earth.
I was annoyed by the doctored beatiﬁcation of the journalist, but I took his side when Sharon said,
“Sammy’s no action hero. Do you know how many laxatives he takes a day?” She paused, and I was unsurprised when she added, “We were about to separate. I see a weird angle in all of this. Maybe he ran off with someone else, maybe he’s afraid to face my lawyers.”
I didn’t have a very high opinion of Katzenberg, but his wife was arguing that he had kidnapped himself.
Sharon looked over at the table next to us. Within minutes, she found ten things wrong with the way in which those parents were raising their child.
I don’t know if Sharon was fortiﬁed by America’s Puritan traditions—pioneers who had defeated the ﬁerce elements, undecorated churches where they sang hymns in pious simplicity, daily lives full of prayer. What I do know is she was convinced that horrible truth is more conclusive. She acted on the outskirts of emotional considerations, as if by separating feelings from acts, she was fulﬁlling an ethical end.
Over dessert, which unfortunately did not include low-calorie cookies, she extrapolated her ethics. If she gave in to feeling, everything would be lost. She could only be guided by principles.
She had sued Point Blank for publishing photos from the family album without permission. The photos had hurt her interests: once they got out, it would be more difﬁcult to sell an exclusive for a miniseries about her husband’s tragedy.
She had come from Los Angeles, where she had been talking with producers. I could be helpful. Obviously, nobody would accept a Mexican screenwriter. Would I be interested in a consulting position? Saying no had never been so sweet.
“I’m Samuel’s friend,” I lied.
11. La Bola is the World
The nightmare of having to see Sharon was offset by Cristi’s unprecedented acts of love. She took Sharon to the Saturday Bazaar to buy traditional crafts, got her some drops that instantaneously disinfected salads, and gave her a list of 24-hour pharmacies.
Plus, she was getting on great with Tania. She memorized the story about the carnivorous carrots so she could recite it for her during trafﬁc jams.
The most surprising thing was that Cristi’s abundant good vibes even made their way to Renata. They ran into each other one afternoon outside my apartment.
“Your girlfriend’s so cute,” said my ex.
For a moment, I thought that I too might be capable of “ﬂoating in the depths.”
But one night, while I was drifting off watching the news, the phone rang.
“I’m here.” Hearing that voice, trembling, subdued, barely audible, meant understanding, with hair-raising clarity, “I’m alive.”
“Where is ‘here’?” I asked him.
“In the Parque de la Bola.”
I put on my shoes and crossed the street. Samuel Katzenberg stood next to the cement sphere. He looked thinner. Even in the darkness, his eyes reﬂected anguish. I hugged his checkered shirt. He wasn’t expecting that; he seemed startled. Then, as if he were only now learning how to do it, he put his arms around me. He wept, with a hollow moan. A man walking an Afghan crossed the street when he noticed us.
Katzenberg smelled like rancid ﬂesh. Between sobs, he told me they had let him go on the outskirts of town, near a cement factory. He’d ﬂagged down a cab. He didn’t remember my address, but he did remember the absurd name of the trafﬁc circle across the street.
“Parque de la Bola,” he recited.
He fell silent. Then he looked at the cement sphere, walked up to it, laid his stiffened hands on its surface, recognizing the weak contours of the continents.
“La bola is the world,” he said intensely.
We went up to my apartment. After he had showered, he told me that he’d been hooded and kept in a tiny closet. The only food they gave him was cereal. One time, they put hallucinogenic mushrooms in it. They took off his hood once a day so he could contemplate an altar covered in a strange combination of images: Catholic, pre-Hispanic, postmodern. A Virgin of Guadalupe, an obsidian knife, dark sunglasses. In the afternoons, they played “The End” by the Doors, for hours and hours. Behind him, someone imitated the anguished, drugged-out voice of Jim Morrison. The torture had been terrible, but it had helped him understand the Mexican apocalypse.
Katzenberg’s eyes darted from side to side, like he was looking for someone else in the room. I didn’t have to look. It was obvious who had kidnapped him.
12. Friendly Fire
“Miracle of miracles!” Gonzalo Erdiozábal answered the door in his slippers.
I walked into his apartment without saying a word. It took some time before I could speak. Too many things were swirling around in my interior, that place I take such care to avoid when I write screenplays. When I ﬁnally started talking, I couldn’t convey the complexity of my emotions.
Gonzalo sat on a sofa upholstered with mini carpets. The decor made manifest its owner’s textile hysteria. There were Huichol weavings in colors evoking the mental electricity of peyote, and Afghan rugs, and paintings by an ex-girlfriend who got her ﬁfteen minutes of fame by threading horse hairs through amate paper.
“Care for some tea?” offered Gonzalo.
I didn’t give him the chance to play herbalist. I glanced at the poster of Morrison on the wall. The kidnapping had his patented design. How could he be so callous? He had made his victim kneel in front of a syncretic altar that might—and the idea terriﬁed me—have appeared in “my” screenplay.
With sincere and clumsy words, I talked about his taste for manipulation. We weren’t his friends. We were his pawns. We could go to jail because of him! The detectives had me under surveillance! If he didn’t give a damn about me, he could at least have thought of Tania. A bitter taste ﬁlled my mouth. I didn’t want to look at Gonzalo. I concentrated on the arabesques in the main rug.
“I’m sorry,” he said, repeating the phrase that had, once again, proven him guilty. “I’m not asking you to understand. But every story has two sides. Let me tell mine.”
I let him tell it, not because I wanted to but because my lips were trembling too much for me to refuse.
He reminded me that on Samuel Katzenberg’s last visit, he had invented Mexican rituals at my behest. It was me who’d got him involved with the journalist. Martín Palencia had been right when he’d caressed the doll’s blonde hair: I had connected Katzenberg with his kidnapper, though I didn’t know it at the time. Why hadn’t I ﬁgured it out sooner? What kind of moron was I, next to Gonzalo?
“I’m an actor,” he said in a calm voice. “I always have been, you know that. The thing is, theater got too small for me, so I started to look for other forums. You didn’t introduce me to Samuel so I’d tell him the truth, you introduced me so that I would simulate it.”
Katzenberg had grown fond of Gonzalo, and told him when he was coming back to Mexico. He told Gonzalo before he told me. That’s why Gonzalo wasn’t surprised when I mentioned that the journalist was returning to the city. Was it wrong for Gonzalo to get back in touch with Katzenberg on his own? No, of course not. Samuel had been frank with him: his marriage was falling apart, and the pre-nup had a clause that freed him of all responsibility if he suffered a severe nervous breakdown. Plus, he needed to write a good story.
“There was no anti-Semitic Irishman fucking his girlfriend and his wife. Samuel doesn’t have a girlfriend. Have you met Sharon? That proves the Irishman doesn’t exist. Sammy likes set-ups, too. He wanted to have you on his side. He thinks you’re sentimental. Do you know why he needed to write a good story? Because the fact checker screwed him over when he published the article on Frida Kahlo and the volcano. The fact checker found all kinds of exaggerations and lies, but he didn’t correct any of it. Two years later, there was a ‘fact audit.’ That sort of thing happens in the United States. They’re freaking truth-Puritans. A battalion of fact checkers went over the stories and Sammy got caught with his pants down. The principle source of his garbage was you. You told him all kinds of bullshit to placate his need for exoticism. Samuel was wrong: his Deep Throat was delirious. Do you know why he went looking for you on his second visit? So he would know what not to write about. You’re the original faker. Accept it, jackass.”
That’s what Katzenberg thought of me: my words represented the outer limits of credibility. That’s why he seemed so elusive and unsure at Los Alcatraces. He wasn’t distrusting the other tables, he was distrusting what was right in front of him.
The kidnapping orchestrated by Gonzalo immersed Katzenberg in the reality he so yearned for. Katzenberg had lived it as something indisputably true: his days in captivity were devastatingly authentic.
“In war, sometimes a commando will hit his own troops. They call it friendly ﬁre, amigo. I don’t think Samuel suffered any more than he wanted to suffer. The divorce and the story were handed to him on a platter. Do you know who paid his ransom?” He took a theatrical pause. “His magazine.”
“How much did they give you, you son of a bitch?”
“Let me ﬁnish: do you know what Samuel uncovered?” I didn’t answer. My mouth was full of bitter spit.
“Do you know about the Tuxtepec Barbies?” he asked me.
I thought about the doll the detective had shown me, but I didn’t say anything. Gonzalo needed no response from me to keep talking:
“Before he spoke to you, Samuel went to Tuxtepec. He discovered a factory full of Chinese workers. A Shanghai maﬁa was falsifying Mexican toys that were purportedly coming from Peking. We live in a world of ghosts: copies of copies, everything is pirated. Samuel’s next story is going to be called ‘Chinese Shadows.’”
Gonzalo Erdiozábal poured himself a cup of tea.
“You sure you don’t want any?”
“Is it pirated tea?” I asked. “How much did you get out of them?”
“What kind of insect do you think I am? I didn’t get anything. Those 75,000 dollars are for the poor children of Chiapas.”
He showed me a receipt printed in a language I couldn’t read. Then he added,
“The Swedish government is going to supervise the deposits. We’re giving violence a run for its money, for a good cause.” He sipped his tea slowly, opening a parenthesis to add, “You confused poor Samuel with all that bullshit you told him last time. He almost lost his job. He didn’t know who to trust. If I hadn’t kidnapped him, the Chinese Maﬁa would have done him in.”
“You kidnapped him philanthropically?”
“Don’t oversimplify. In the end it was all for a good cause.”
I couldn’t take it any more:
“Do you think fucking Renata was a good cause?”
“What are you talking about?”
“About the hacienda, asshole. About the tennis court.
About when you went with Renata to look for a ball and took forever to come back. I’m talking about the ball that I just found in the back seat of a Chevrolet, the Chevrolet where you fucked Renata. You’re an animal.”
Gonzalo was about to answer when his phone started ringing. The ring tone was Jimi Hendrix’s cover of the U.S. national anthem.
Bizarrely, Gonzalo said,
“It’s for you.” He handed me the phone.
It was Cristi. She had searched heaven, earth, and sea for me. She missed me unbearably. She missed the wrinkles around my eyes. Gunslinger wrinkles. That’s what she said. A gunslinger who kills everybody but is still the good guy of the movie.
Gonzalo Erdiozábal watched me from behind the cloud of steam that was rising from his tea.
When I hung up, he spoke in a weak voice.
“I made a mistake with Renata. It didn’t help anybody: not you, not her, not me. You two were falling apart. Admit it. I was the exit sign, nothing more. I apologized. Years ago. Do you want me to get down on my knees? I don’t mind. I’m sorry, güey. I fucked up with Renata, but not with Cristi.”
“What are you trying to say?”
“She adores you. I knew it from the day we ran into her on our way out of that awful play, The Lizards’ Corner. All she needed was a push. She had her doubts about you. Well, we all have our doubts about you, but at least that’s something, most people I have no doubt about. Most people are awful and that’s it.”
“Did you take her out to play tennis, too?”
“Don’t be banal. I wrote what I think of you, which apparently is marvelous. No? I did it in ﬁrst person, as if it were you talking. I’m an actor; ﬁrst person sounds very sincere in the voice of actors.”
I didn’t respond to that. It cost me a lot to say the words, but I couldn’t leave without asking:
“Do you have a copy of the script?”
“Of course, Maestro.”
Gonzalo seemed to have been waiting for me to ask.
He handed me a spiral-bound folder.
“Do you like the cover? The texture is called ‘smoke.’ It’s black but you can see through it—like your mind. Read it so you can see how much I love you.”
Some remnant of dignity kept me from responding.
I left without the melodrama of slamming the door, but couldn’t resist the minor offense of leaving it open.
Katzenberg went back to New York with his wife, but he got divorced a few weeks later, without any legal hiccups. Anyone who gets kidnapped in Mexico and is declared by the president to be “an American hero” is entitled to his pre-nup exception clause.
He called me from his new apartment, very grateful for what I had done for him.
“I misjudged you after my ﬁrst trip. Gonzalo insisted that I contact you again. It really was worth it.”
His story about Chinese pirated goods was a success, soon surpassed by the chronicle of his kidnapping, which won the Meredith Non-Fiction Award.
With the same breathlessness as Katzenberg’s American readers, I read the script Gonzalo had forged for me with deﬁant precision. He had drawn a perfect pantomime of my manias, but he managed to make my limitations seem brilliant and interesting. His autobiography of me was a display of his actor’s skill at forgery, but also of the tolerance with which he had borne my ﬂaws. He had a strange way of being a great friend, but he really was.
On account of my pride, it took me two months to tell him so.
I never said anything to Renata about her affair with Gonzalo. My only act of vengeance was to give her the tennis ball I found in the Chevrolet, though memory is a capricious universe. Indifferently, she took it and put it in a fruit basket, like just one more apple.
Cristi was getting along better and better with Tania, although she didn’t share our interest in Keiko, maybe because that had started before she came into our lives.
Only the news about the whale was sad: he didn’t know how to hunt, he hadn’t found a mate in the icy seas. He seemed to miss his aquarium in Mexico City. The only good thing—at least for us—was that he was going to star in the movie Free Willy.
“Why don’t you write the script?” Tania asked me, with that heartrending belief in me her mother had felt, years before.
Cristi was right, the time had come to forget the orca. The ﬁnal episode related to Samuel Katzenberg occurred one afternoon while I was contemplating the Parque de la Bola and the children skateboarding around the miniature world. The sky shone clean. Finally, the forest ﬁres were over. A whisper sent me over to the door. Somebody had slipped an envelope underneath it.
I guessed what it was from its weight: not a letter, not a book. I opened the envelope carefully. Along with the dollars, there was a message from Samuel Katzenberg. “I’ll be coming to Mexico in the next few days, for another story. Is this good for an advance?”
Half an hour later, the phone rang. Katzenberg, for sure. The air ﬁlled with the tension of unanswered phone calls. But I didn’t pick up.
Juan Villoro is Mexico’s most prolific, prize-winning author, playwright, journalist, and screenwriter. His books have been translated into multiple languages; he has received the Herralde award in Spain for his novel El testigo, the Antonin Artaud award in France for Los culpables. His novel, Arrecife, was recently short-listed for the Rezzori Prize in Italy. Los culpables is his first work to be published in English, and Braziller will also publish his novel, Arrecife, in the summer of 2016. Villoro lives in Mexico City and is a visiting lecturer at Yale and Princeton universities.
Kimi Traube’s translations have appeared in BOMB Magazine, Powderkeg, and The Bridge Series at McNally Jackson. She has an MFA in Fiction and Literary Translation from Columbia University. She is currently working on a novel in prose poems.
“Amigos Mexicanos” from The Guilty is published by permission of George Braziller. Copyright © 2015 Juan Villoro.