Among Friends

Spiral City
Melanie Smith (in collaboration with Rafael Ortega), Spiral City, 2002. Stills from Video/DVD, 5.57min in a 60min loop. Courtesy of the artist and OMR Gallery, Mexico City.

Juan Villoro, born 1956 in Mexico City, is one of the finest Latin American writers of his generation, though little known in the United States. Author of three novels, including the internationally renowned El testigo, and numerous short stories, as well as criticism, memoir, travel-writing, screenplays, and several works of children’s literature, his full-length books have not been translated into English. He is perhaps as much admired in Spanish for his journalism as for his fiction, and his story “Among Friends” displays Villoro’s talent for combining journalistic detail, comic invention, and personal drama with an acute portrayal of his home country in a time of violence and disorder.

The telephone rang twenty times. On the other end of the line someone was thinking that I live in an estate where it takes a long time to get from the stables to the telephone, or that I hesitate a lot before picking up the receiver. The latter, sadly, turned out to be the case.

It was Samuel Kramer. He had returned to Mexico City to write a report on violence. On his previous visit Kramer had traveled on the New Yorker’s dime. Now he was writing for Point Blank, one of those magazines where advertisers perfume their advertisements. It took him two minutes to explain that this constituted an improvement.

“Mexico is a magical country, but it’s also a confusing one. I need you to help me figure out what’s horrifying and what’s Buñuelian.”

Kramer pronounced the ñ luxuriously, as if he were sucking on a silver bullet, and offered me a thousand dollars. Then I told him why I was offended.

Two years before, Samuel Kramer had arrived to write the nteenth feature on Frida Kahlo. Someone told him I wrote screenplays for tough documentaries, and he paid me to accompany him through a city he considered savage and explain things he called mythical. He’d read a lot about the unhinged painting of Mexicans; he knew more than I about the Communist Party, the attempt on Trotsky’s life, and the tenuous romance between Frida and the exiled prophet. In a pedantic tone, he revealed to me the importance of “the wound as a transsexual notion”; the paralyzed painter was sexy in a “very postmodern” way. Needless to say, Madonna admired her without understanding her. Kramer had meticulously researched the archives; now he needed a contact who was ruggedly familiar with Frida Kahlo’s true country. In the days Kramer and I spent together, he saw Mexico as a nightmare devoid of folklore. He could not understand why the painter’s famed regional dresses could now only be found on the second floor of the Anthropological Museum, or why today’s Mexican women waxed that honest mustache that, by his lights, made FK a suggestive bisexual icon. It was of little help that the city contributed an environmental disaster to his report: El Popocatepetl renewed its volcanic activity, and we visited Frida’s manor under a shower of ashes. This allowed me to speak with very calculated nostalgia about the lost “region with the most transparent air.” I admit that I barraged Kramer with commonplaces and kitsch. But the fault was his: he wanted to see iguanas in the streets.

Mexico City was as disappointing to him as if he’d traversed a ceremonial site buried in trash and neon signs. When I introduced him to an expert in Mexican art he wanted nothing to do with him. That was when I had to quit: I could not continue in the company of a racist. Eri Morand is a black man from Senegal; he came to Mexico on a grant when President Luis Echeverría decided that our countries were very similar. He wears fabulous necklaces and gorgeous African tunics. “I have no use for this informant,” Kramer looked at me as if I trafficked in mistaken ethnicities.

I decided to put a stop to him: I asked for twice the money. He accepted and I had to scrounge for adjectives that would bring the deeper Mexico to light. I also introduced him to Gonzalo Erdiozabal. Here in Mexico, Gonzalo resembles an arrogant swashbuckler from 1940s Hollywood. In Austria, he had people revere him as Xochipili, presumed descendant of Emperor Moctezuma. Every morning he would arrive at the Museum of Ethnology in Vienna dressed like an Aztec dancer, light tree resin incense, and collect signatures to help recover Moctezuma’s headdress. He obtained NGO funding and the unrestrained devotion of a mutable harem of blondes. Obviously, it would have been a tragedy for them to give him the headdress. He enjoyed the Moctezuma grant until nostalgia defeated him (“I miss the air that smells of gasoline and pork rinds,” he told me in a letter). During Kramer’s first visit, Gonzalo organized a rooftop fertility rite and took us to the hut of a fortune teller with vitiligo who made us chew sugar cane to scrutinize our destinies in the pulp.

Thanks to Gonzalo’s improvised traditions, Kramer found an authentic environment for his feature. The night we said our goodbyes, he drank one tequila too many and confessed that his magazine had given him enough money for a month. Gonzalo and I had let him investigate everything in a week. The next day he wanted to keep skimping: he decided the hotel van was too expensive and stopped a parakeet-colored Volkswagen on the street. The taxi driver took him to an alley and held an ice pick to his jugular. Kramer kept only his passport and plane ticket. His flight was cancelled, though, because El Popocatepetl erupted again and the ashes got in the airplane turbines.

Kramer spent his last day in the airport hotel, watching news of the volcano, terrified to go out into the hall. He told me to come see him. I was afraid he would ask me to return the money, but mostly I was afraid I would offer it. I pitied Kramer from a distance until he sent me his article. The title, of a dermatological vulgarity, was the least of it: “Eruptions: Frida and the Volcano.” The author described me as “one of the locals” and transcribed, with neither quotes nor scruple, everything I’d said. His article was a complete plundering of my ideas; its only originality lay in having discovered them (I only knew I had them when I read it). The piece ended with a sentence I’d spoken about salsa verde and the aching chromatics of Mexicans. They could have asked me for the article for half the price. But the magazine needed the award-winning signature of Samuel Kramer. Plus, I don’t write articles.

The star reporter’s return to Mexico put my patience and dignity to the test. How dare he call me?

“Sorry for not having mentioned you,” said Kramer at the other
end of the line, politely. I paused, as if I were thinking about something important.

I looked out the window, toward the Parque de la Bola. A child
had climbed to the top of the enormous cement sphere. He spread out his arms as if he’d conquered the peak of a mountain. I turned to look at my desk: the computer, upholstered in sticky notes where I jot down ideas, resembled a domestic Xipe-Totec god. Our Lord the Flayed One. Instead of writing a script about syncretism I had created a monument to the subject.

While Kramer tried to ingratiate himself with me (“the editors destroyed key adjectives; you know what it’s like in beat reporting”), I remembered the message that Katy Suarez had left on my answering machine: “How’s the screenplay? I had a dream about you last night. A nightmare with low-budget horror effects. But you behaved yourself: you were saving me. Remember that we need that synopsis by Friday. Thanks for saving me. Kiss.”

Hearing Katy’s voice is a blissful annihilation. I love all her inconvenient proposals. Thanks to her I’ve written screenplays about genetically improved corn and the breeding of zebus. She’s seen me in grave states of drunkenness, and my prose has never been up to the same standards as the safflower oil we have to promote in our documentaries. She has all the facts at hand to consider me a drunk with a tendency to hurl unwieldy objects at the heads of producers, and yet she talks to me as if we’d just won an Oscar. Now I was working on a project on syncretism: “We Mexicans are pure collage,” she’d told me. It’s hard to believe, but coming from her, that sentence has its joke to it. I had unplugged the answering machine in order not to hear Katy. But the telephone rang twenty fatal times and I wanted to know what sociopath was looking for me. Kramer stayed on the line: he had exhausted his formulas of courtesy and was awaiting a response. I checked my wallet: two 200-peso bills, with traces of cocaine (too little). I was on the verge of accepting the thousand dollars when the Point Blank emissary resumed the conversation in a confessional tone. His repeated refusals to come back to Mexico had built a bleak legend around him. An Irish anti-Semite had circulated rumors that the reporter had done something shady on his last visit. Was he afraid of his DEA contacts, his corrupt informants, a lubricious and abandoned Indian woman?

“Fitzgerald said that there aren’t any second acts in American life,” he added with melancholy.

I insisted that I was very upset. I was not “one of the locals.” If he wanted to refer to me, he had to use my name. I was emphatic. Then I asked for $2,000.

There was silence on the other end of the line. I thought Kramer was doing sums. But he was already on the subject of his article.

“How violent is Mexico City?”

I remembered something that Burroughs wrote to Kerouac or Ginsberg or some other über-junkie:

“Don’t worry: Mexicans only kill their friends.”

Truth be told, the only thing that interested me in Mexico City was the farewell to Keiko, the killer whale. The Sundays of the divorced depend a lot on the zoo and the aquarium. I’d gotten used to going with Tania to Reino Aventura, the amusement park that for us is little more than a whale sanctuary. I decided to spend the morning with Tania watching the killer whale (which my daughter more correctly calls “orca”) and the afternoon looking for attractively violent spots with Kramer (this had its difficulties: all the places where I’ve been mugged are far too mundane). One matter remained unresolved: when would I write my synopsis? While I tried to salvage a trace of coke on a bill with the effigy of Sor Juana, I thought of one rock-bottom reason that would paralyze my work: What sense does it make to write screenplays in a country where the Cineteca Nacional exploded during a screening of The Promised Land and where there is never the slightest relation between the things I imagine and the handsome male who whimpers through my orations onscreen? “Write a novel,” Renata used to tell me, in the years when I used to modify my habits in my own favor: “There the special effects are free and the extras aren’t unionized. Only your interior world counts.” I’ll never forget that last sentence. Renata saw me, with those chestnut eyes that Tania unfortunately didn’t inherit, as if I were an interesting and slightly diffuse landscape. None of the later accusations or the quarrels that led to our divorce ever hurt me as much as her generous expectations. Her trust was far more devastating than her reasoned criticisms; there was a time when Renata attributed to me a potential I never had. Which leads me to the actual reason I write screenplays: there, “interior” refers to the set and is decorated with sofas.

I called Gonzalo Erdiozabal. He doesn’t write, but his biography is like a documentary on modern ethnology. He was a veteran university stage actor (he recited Hamlet’s monologue submersed in an unforgettable stupor), was involved in a project breeding freshwater shrimp in the Panuco River, left a woman with two daughters in Saltillo, financed a movie about the monarch butterfly, and started a website to give voice to the country’s fifty-six indigenous communities. Gonzalo is a triumph of practicality: he fixes motors he’s never seen before and finds ingredients in my pantry to make exquisite meals. There’s something tiresome about his pioneer’s energy and his thirst for hobbies, but in moments of loneliness he is indispensable. When Renata and I split he ignored my pathetic desire to isolate myself and visited me constantly; he would show up loaded with magazines, videos, an Antillean rum that was exceptionally hard to find.

Gonzalo told me on the phone that he had never thought about writing a synopsis for a screenplay, in other words that he accepted. I was so relieved that I felt like adding something: “Kramer is in Mexico.”

The news didn’t interest him. He started talking about his former classmate who humped Genet in a gym. From his mouth, events 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 images of the departing whale. This is a great place to raise pandas. But orcas need greater freedom to start a family. That’s what Keiko was off to do. I explained this to Tania, who had just learned the word “sinister” and found numerous applications for it.

We should be happy, Keiko would have a family out at sea. She looked at me through narrowed eyes. I told her the story about the carnivorous carrots before she could say, “That’s sinister.”

The whale had been trained to bid farewell to the people of Mexico. It waved goodbye with a fin while we sang Las golondrinas. A mariachi with ten trumpets played exceedingly sad songs and the singer exclaimed: “I’m not crying: it’s only my eyes sweating!” Keiko jumped one last time. She seemed to smile with her menacing mouth. On the way out I bought Tania an inflatable killer whale.

There were forest fires in the vicinity of El Ajusco. The ashes made a premature nightfall. Seen from the hill of Reino Aventura, the city palpated like an uncertain she-monkey. Tania and I took the highway without saying a word. I hated Kramer, with whom I could never talk about Keiko, and Gonzalo, who’d surely been an orca instructor in the Pacific. I left Tania with the promise of inflating her whale and went to Los Alcatraces. It was four in the afternoon. Kramer had already eaten; he found it “intriguing” that we Mexicans ate lunch so late. The place was ideal for torturing him and having him thank me for it. There was ranchera music playing at full volume, seats in the toy-store colors that we Mexicans only see in “authentic” Mexican restaurants, six spicy salsas on the table and a menu with three varieties of insect—sufficiently folksy discomforts for my fellow pupil to bear them as experiences.

Baldness had gained ground on Kramer’s forehead. He wore a plaid shirt and a watch with a clear plastic band. His small eyes, of a lapis lazuli intensity, moved insistently, as if he were searching for a lost fly for his article. He asked for decaffeinated coffee (there was only café de la olla, with cinnamon and cloves). He wanted to watch his diet; he felt a throbbing at his temples: bing-bing-bing. “It’s the altitude, nobody can digest at twenty-two hundred meters,” I reassured him. He talked about his work problems. They hated him at three different publications. He’d had the luck of going to places that turned unstable on his arrival. He was the first to document the massive migrations in Rwanda, the Kurdish genocide, the toxic leak at the Union Carbide complex in Bhopal. He had won awards and enmities left and right. He could feel his enemies breathing down the back of his neck. We were the same age (36), but he was softly worn down, as if he’d traveled through Africa without air conditioning. His eyes checked over the other tables before he said, “I didn’t want to come back to Mexico.” Could it be that someone who’d cut his teeth on coups d’état and radioactive clouds could find life in Mexico so frightening? “There’s something imperceptible here: evil is transcendent,” he ran his fingers through his thinning hair. They served me a little jar of coffee. The handle was broken and had been reinforced with a piece of tape. I pointed at my jar: “Here evil is improvised.”

I liked Kramer better in his paranoid state. He wasn’t the boring and covetous manipulator of the previous visit. He wanted to write his report and run. It took some effort to adjust to his fears: there was something excessively studied about his conduct. As if he already sensed signs of the danger he had to avoid. Was he hiding something from me that he knew or intuited? Or something more: did he wish to protect me, his informant, the Deep Throat who would belch up all the definitive facts of the disaster?

I asked him for his cell phone. I talked to Pancho. He arranged to meet me two streets away from the restaurant, in the parking lot of an Oxxo. I wanted Kramer to witness a coke deal, as simple and cheap as ordering pizza from Domino’s. Crime as habit.

Pancho showed up in a gray Camaro, accompanied by his small daughters. He approached my car window; he leaned on it; he let a paper fall into it; he took the 200 pesos pressed into the handshake. “Take care,” he told me, an unnerving phrase coming from someone with shaky fingers, an emaciated face, parchment skin. Pancho’s face is the best antidote to his drugs. Or maybe not, maybe he has the appeal of a poorly embalmed Phoenician king. Samuel Kramer watched him avidly.

I went into the Oxxo to buy cigarettes. I was at the register when a quick shadow entered my field of vision. I thought they were robbing the store. But the cashier was watching with more curiosity than horror. I turned to look. On the other side of the glass, Kramer was being pulled from my car by a guy in a ski mask. A semiautomatic pistol was held to his temple. A second man in a ski mask emerged from the back seat of my car, as if he’d been looking for something. He addressed those who watched the scene from the store: “You sons of fucking bitches!” We didn’t see the flash from the shot; the insult was enough to have us on the floor between the cans and boxes. When I left the Oxxo the doors of my car were wide open, and it had that desolate helplessness of recently vandalized automobiles. All that remained of Kramer was a button that had come off during the scuffle. A colorful cloud rose to the sky, giving off a chemical aroma. The kidnapper had destroyed the two Xs on the neon sign. Strangely, the other letters still glowed.

Lieutenant Natividad Carmona had definite opinions: “If you chew, you’ll think better.” He held out a pack of blackcurrant-flavored gum. I took a piece even though I didn’t want to.

An artificial taste accompanied me in the patrol car. From the passenger seat, Martín Palencia informed his partner:

“El Tamal croaked already.”

Carmona didn’t make the slightest comment. I didn’t know who El Tamal was, but I was aghast that his death would be received with such indifference.

It had taken me a while to react to Kramer’s kidnapping. This is what happens when you have cocaine in your pocket. How to act before so many onlookers? Pancho was supplying some extremely fine material; to discard it was a crime. I returned to the Oxxo and approached the cans of condensed milk. I chose one for breastfeeding babies with reflux, of the same brand that saved Tania in her first months. I removed the plastic lid and placed the paper in between the lid and the metal surface. With any luck, I’d recover it the next day.

When I returned to my car I found two policemen in charge of the scene. They had put a bag of marijuana in my glove compartment. They could take me to the police station as a witness without this contrivance, but the force of habit or the desire for a bribe had compelled them to plant an additional motive. I was about to sacrifice my last bill (with traces of even more incriminating evidence) when a gleaming patrol car braked in front of us with that squeal that cars never make in Mexican cinema.

That’s how I met Officers Natividad Carmona and Martín Palencia. They had hair like a ferret’s and manicured fingernails. They went through the car with a perverse delight while curious onlookers discerned a scar on Carmona’s forehead and a Rolex on Palencia’s wrist. They treated the uniformed policemen with absolute contempt. They made them take their bag of weed and their will to extortion elsewhere. Then they got in touch with Kramer’s hotel, Interpol, the DEA, a security post at the Embassy. This efficiency grew preoccupying when combined with the phrase:

“Let’s hit the cells.”

I got in the patrol car. It smelled new. The dashboard seemed to have more buttons than necessary.

“Were you a good friend of Kramer’s?” asked Carmona.

I answered that I knew him, hastily, hoping that my luck would be inverse to that of the unknown Tamal. They seemed not to hear, or to wait for our route to activate another response.

We drove by a neighborhood of low houses. It had rained in this part of the city. Each time we stopped next to another car, the driver pretended not to see us. Where could Kramer be? In some miserable slum, some drug lord’s fortified hideout? I imagined him being dragged around by his kidnappers, a man’s back advancing toward a dirty fog, a body that became anonymous, inexplicable, a victim without a face, the product of a profound mischance, a corpse licked anxiously by street dogs. I attributed a horrific destiny to him so as to not think about my own. Thirty-six years in the city are enough to know that a trip to the cells doesn’t usually involve a return. Although there are exceptions, people who survive a week in a tiny cell, with fifteen ice pick wounds, electrocuted in tubs of cold water, people who return to tell the tale only to have no one believe them. I thought about this in order to cheer up. I saw myself alive and disfigured and primed to scare Tania with my caresses. I wondered if Renata would cry at my funeral. No; she wouldn’t even go to the wake; she wouldn’t stand having my mother hug her and speak sweet and sad words to her that revealed that at bottom they, the both of them, were responsible for my death.

Perhaps what was inching me toward melodrama was the absence of an open threat. The patrol car smelled good, I was chewing blackcurrant gum, we were advancing with no hurry, respecting the traffic signals.

“So, you’re a filmmaker?” Martín Palencia said suddenly.

“I write scripts.”

“I want to ask you a question: that Buñuel got into all sorts of shit, right? I’ve got a bunch of tapes at home, of the ones we confiscated in Tepito. All due respect, but I say Buñuel did all sorts of shit. I mean it’s pretty clear he was a huge druggie. An insatiable motherfucker. That guy’s the boss if you ask me.” Palencia moved his hands a lot, his eyes sparkled, as if he’d been a long time in trying to expound on the subject. “For an old guy like that to do anything he wanted! I’ve always said: Shakespeare was a bitch but so what? Those motherfuckers are always creating, creating, creating . . .” He moved his head vehemently, to one side and the other, a gesture that suggested blow or amphetamines. “Do you remember that Buñuel movie where two chicks are the same chick? God damn they were hot! They don’t look alike for shit, but that old guy mixes them up and neither one of them puts out. I’d also mix them up. God’s truth. That’s surrealism, right? Fuck, I’d love to live all surreal . . .” He paused, and after a deep breath he asked me: “So, what did Master Buñuel get into?”

“He liked martinis.”

“I told you, man!” Palencia slapped Carmona on the back.

After one eternal hour, the officers decided they’d gathered enough information and dropped me off at the Public Prosecutor’s Office. An attorney asked me about fifty questions, among them if I’d had sexual relations with Kramer or if we’d had disagreements that might have led me to murder. Nobody with the intention of protecting himself would confess so directly. But the interrogation’s force was methodical. Once finished, the attorney repeated the questions in a different order. In this new sequence, some questions acquired new meanings, made me feel as if I knew certain things before they happened and had glimpsed or even planned them.

I answered as I could. When I got back to my apartment I collapsed on the bed. I couldn’t forget the cocaine I’d hidden in the Oxxo. I thought I wouldn’t be able to sleep, but I fell into a deep slumber in which, from time to time, I felt the tenuous stroking of a fin.

I woke up at eight in the morning. I looked out the window to see the runners circumnavigating the Parque de la Bola. The answering machine had two messages on it. One from Katy: “What an amazing synopsis! It’s brilliant. I know that praising people isn’t in right now, don’t get offended, but with you I just feel like being so antiquated . . . Kiss—OK, a thousand kisses.” Katy was exultant. I didn’t know that Gonzalo Erdiozabal had sent her the text, nor did I remember having given him Katy’s fax number. Though truth be told I remembered very little. The second message said: “You have to come here. Tania’s screaming her head off.” My ex-wife speaks to me as if our daughter were a fire and I an emergency operator.

I had a donut and a cigarette for breakfast and left for Renata’s. On the way I thought about Katy, her enthusiastic voice, her desire to be “so antiquated,” a magnificent thing in the midst of a disastrous present. Gonzalo was an unsurpassable friend. I found Tania quite calm, but Renata looked at me as if she were calculating the nights I’d spent sleepless. She explained the problem: Lobito, Tania’s hamster, had gotten lost in the Chevrolet, that ancient beast that causes so much trouble and proves that my income is anemic.

I looked for the hamster in the Chevrolet and found only a tortoiseshell brooch in between the seats, shaped like an infinity symbol. Renata used to wear it when I met her. It seemed as incredible to me that this thin translucent material came from a turtle as it did that my fingers had once undone it. Now the mechanism was stuck (or my fingers were losing certain faculties). I decided that specialists should search for Lobito. Tania came with me to the garage. A mechanic in a white robe received my request apathetically, as if all his clients showed up with lost rodents. Maybe toxic gasses grant that tired efficiency.

“Wait in customer services.” He pointed at a glass rectangle, where a television transmitted a government commercial that I find especially repugnant because I wrote it. For one minute the ad promotes a country where four prefabricated walls qualify as a classroom and an achievement; poverty seems at once resolved and unbeatable. “We’ve already done the little we can do,” we hear in the last shot, as a boy with stranded eyes opens his mouth under a drip of water. I closed my eyes until Tania pulled at my pant leg.

The man in the white coat held Lobito:

“We had to take the back seat apart. We also found this.” He held out a tennis ball, which had lost its green luster in the cavity of the car.

I took it with shaky hands. I knew, from the fuzzy contact and the memories it conjured, that the vile Erdiozabal had betrayed me.

In the ’80s, Renata had wanted a very liberated life, but she also needed a car. Her father bought her a Chevrolet and thus buried her in contradictions. Gonzalo Erdiozabal convinced her to assuage the shame by means of a vernacular ceremony: there was a priest who blessed taxis on the day of Saint Christopher, patron saint of travelers. Renata hadn’t wanted to baptize Tania. Nevertheless, she felt so guilty showing up to her anthropology classes in a state-of-the-art Chevrolet that she saw the baptism as an opportunity to combine a bourgeois gift with a social event. Gonzalo appointed himself godfather in the ceremony and brought a cooler filled with beers and snacks from the Tlalpan market.

We went to a distant neighborhood where the city, amazingly, continued to exist. We arrived late and had to wait in line with dozens of taxis. In the background, the chapel raised itself like a dollhouse, painted sky blue and Mexican rose. Gonzalo hired a trio to liven up the wait. We heard boleros, and by the fourth beer I felt compassion for my friend. I have spared one essential detail: Gonzalo loved Renata with desperation and brazenness. His flirting was so obvious it was inoffensive. As we listened to the infinite ways of suffering from love put forth by boleros, I thought about the void that defined his life and determined his fluctuating passions, the constant flight forward that his life was becoming. He had been in the company of some forgettable women; none had interested him for longer than it took to knit a vest in psychedelic colors or to learn the basic postures of yoga. Renata functioned as a postponed pretext for his ersatz love affairs, that definitive and unattainable woman who kept him in the worst of proximities, too close to forget her, too far to forget about the others. I felt intense pity, and told Gonzalo those things that we pronounce in the silences of sentimental music that suddenly comes back to claim its due.

The trio ran through its repertoire before we reached the chapel. When we were finally three taxis away, we were informed that there was no water, not in the church but in the entire neighborhood. They’d had the problem for months and had been bringing water in buckets from a hydrant two kilometers away. Now there wasn’t water there either.

We saw the priest’s dry aspergillum and his face covered in dust. The wind made newspapers and cellophane bags fly.

Renata resigned herself to having her car circulate in limbo, parked at the Department of Anthropology without the compensatory prestige of a popular rite. But Gonzalo was drunk and determined to be our automotive accomplice. He told us to wait for him and disappeared down a dirt road. We entered the chapel. On a side altar the Holy Child Mechanic, clad in denim overalls, held up a cross-shaped key. His pink face, with cardinal red cheekbones, seemed done by a sign-painter. He was surrounded by votives narrating road miracles and miniature cars that taxi drivers left as offerings.

This was enough surprise for the day, but Gonzalo had departed with the eyes of a possessed man. I lamented his loneliness, his vicarious passion for Renata, my inability to be closer to him.

A roar and a cloud of dust announced his return. He came in the front of an Electropura Water truck. The glass jugs radiated a bluish glow. Gonzalo was threatening the driver with the chisel he used to make Peace & Love signs out of balsa wood. When he descended from the cab of the truck his face showed the disfigurations of madness.

The priest refused to resume the sacrament with stolen water. (The driver couldn’t sell us a jug. “I’m not authorized to leave my route.”) Gonzalo slapped him across the face with a handful of bills.

“This water is already tainted by sin,” the priest enunciated. In the dusty air, the water bottles gleamed like treasure.

“Please!” Gonzalo knelt before the priest pathetically. Two taxi drivers helped us drag him to the car. He didn’t speak on the way back. At the door of his building, he hugged me forcefully. He smelled of sweat and filth. “Forgive me. I’m the worst friend,” he whimpered quietly. I thought he was referring to our expedition to the Church of the Child Mechanic. Now the tennis ball explained things a bit differently.

I remembered the weekend we spent with a group of friends at the Martinez’s country house, weeks or maybe only days before the aborted baptism. Although none of us could handle a racket, the tennis court drew us magnetically like an attainable oasis. We launched many a ball beyond the wire fence, but only one of them mattered. Renata and Gonzalo went after it. They returned an hour later, empty-handed. Renata’s skin was flushed. She was obsessively chewing on a hangnail on her index finger.

Now the ball had emerged from the back seat of the Chevrolet. That same hole where my passport went when Renata and I made love in Desierto de los Leones! Could it be another tennis ball? The number of locations of the world’s tennis balls must be inconceivable, but there were other clues: my relationship with Renata grew cold in those days; her hands avoided me; I was of no use to her in the few situations when we were alone. Maybe Gonzalo regretted it, and the baptism of the car was a sort of exorcism with the victim as driver. Either way, one fact remained irrefutable: they had found the ball and used it as a pretext to find refuge in the car, where they had finally lost it. Renata never showed interest in tennis again, nor in me, nor in Gonzalo. Maybe she divorced the two of us in tandem; she could not conceive of one friend without the other. Perhaps she needed Gonzalo as what he had always been, a brief and indispensable fling. Although he, too, lost Renata; my friend had crossed the line that kept him from being a complete asshole. When he said “Forgive me,” he was referring to that unmentionable betrayal.

The tennis ball burned in my hand. I felt so much anger that I couldn’t think about anything else for the rest of the day and forgot the cocaine I’d left in the Oxxo. I tried in vain to locate Erdiozabal. My hands pulsed with strangling motions; I calmed them by burning the sticky notes that decorated my computer, one by one, to make it seem like an activity.

I flipped through old magazines; in an issue of Rolling Stone I found an interview with Kramer. A guileless female reporter asked him: “What is your motto?” Oddly enough he had one: “To Float in the Depths.” I supposed that meant being a successful writer, having a motto. I looked at my computer, which was off. I burned the last yellow sticky note and went out to the street.

The Parque de la Bola was not the best place to clear my mind, especially considering that there I ran into Martín Palencia. He was carrying a sports paper and a cappuccino in a polyurethane cup to kill a few minutes before ringing my apartment. He told me that the federal police had gone through Kramer’s belongings and found many notes on violence, on spontaneous kidnappings, ATM robberies, people found dead in the trunks of cars. What did I know? I told him the truth: Kramer hadn’t seen anything, he wanted to write sinister things, his editors in New York demanded it; to them, Mexico was a wellspring for bloody journalism. I remembered Kramer’s pretentious motto. He really needed it now. Palencia was very intrigued by the recurrence of the adjective ‘Buñuelian’ in Kramer’s notes. Was it a clue or what?

“In relation to Mexico, it means horrifying. That’s all.”

Martín Palencia expected something different from me: “But what about goddamned surrealism? Can’t you imagine some kind of conspiracy here?”

I said goodbye, but Palencia caught me by the shirt sleeve, his fingers unrelenting.

“Don’t you find it a little strange that they haven’t demanded a ransom?”

Yes, it was very strange. I left with the promise of letting him know about any surrealist clues and returned to my building. Katy was at the door.

“I’m sorry for showing up unannounced, but I wanted to see you so badly.” Her eyes emitted an especially strong glow; the light of the afternoon gave them a purplish splendor; she ran her hand through her chestnut hair, nervous. “I’m not always like this, really.”

We went up to the apartment. The first thing she did was look at my computer, recently cleared of its yellow leaf-cover.

“I loved the idea you use to start the screenplay: the computer blanketed in sticky notes, like a modern Xipe-Totec god. There’s the desperation of the screenwriter, and the contemporary sense of syncretism. But I didn’t come over to be pedantic.” She took me by the hand.

Gonzalo Erdiozabal had used me as a character in his synopsis. His abusive imagination was surprising, but I could no longer appreciate it. Katy’s lips approached mine.

I didn’t recover the cocaine in the can of condensed milk. It would have been debonair to forget something with a $20 value, but I went to the Oxxo determined to check each and every can for babies with reflux. There wasn’t a single one. That product is sold in pharmacies. It was there by mistake on the day of Kramer’s kidnapping. Something was going on in the city; an inscrutable law was dictating that everything appear in the wrong place. Gonzalo Erdiozabal vanished without a response to my calls save this message on the machine: “I’m insanely busy; I’m off to Chiapas with some Swedish human rights people. Good luck with the screenplay.”

Days went by without word of Keiko. I made the mistake of going back to Reino Aventura with Tania. The tank, traversed by a fruitless dolphin, was like a monument to the void.

The worst of it was not knowing what I’d written. The best: its consequences. Katy had a spectacular freckle on her second rib and an unsurpassable way of licking ears. She insisted that she had her eye on me from the start, but that the synopsis was what finally convinced her. With justified pride, she felt responsible for my having opened up: the synopsis was directed at her. All that was left for me was to find out what I’d written. Katy mentioned certain phrases as a sign of complicity, with such frequency that when she said, “God is a concept by which we measure our pain,” I thought she was quoting me. She had to explain, with humiliating classicism, that she was quoting John Lennon.

Gonzalo’s text must have been very long, or my interior very sparse. The truth is that it showed me entirely. Katy was amazed by the courage it took to confess my most ignoble falls, my emotional lacks, and to sublimate them into my interest in Mexican syncretism. Never before had an ethnological documentary revealed so much about its screenwriter. Katy fell in love with that horrifying and convincing character created by Gonzalo, the adverse shadow that, obviously, I tried to imitate.

Little by little, I reduced the number of sordid mornings I spent sniffing bills. The days without cocaine weren’t easy, but they convinced me that I was a different person, with sudden tics and a sluggish attention, which was precisely what was necessary to adopt the poses Katy attributed to me.

Kramer’s case remained open and I had to return to the Prosecutor’s Office. My declarations were checked against the Oxxo cashier’s. A one-eyed agent took our dictation. He wrote very fast, using only one arm, as if boasting a faculty unknown to people with two eyes.

Side by side, our pallid, reticent testimonies created a sense of unreality. There were discrepancies in timing and point of view. Notions of before and after blurred in a minimal, barely decisive way. After seven hours, one detail grew clear in my mind until it acquired the judicial rank of evidence: when we left Los Alcatraces, I used Kramer’s phone again to let Pancho know that we were on our way. Then I put it in the back seat. That was what the second kidnapper was looking for in my car. I was excited to find a piece missing in the chaos, but I didn’t communicate it to the one-eyed man who wrote with one hand. The telephone would have proved my ties to the coke dealer. The men in the ski masks had acted efficiently; Kramer had to disappear without a telephonic trace.

I was exhausted by the end of it, but Officer Martín Palencia still had a will to accost me. His partner Natividad Carmona observed him from a few meters back, exploring his mouth with a silver toothpick.

“Look,” he showed me a Barbie doll. “This is one of the ones they manufacture in Tuxtepec and label ‘Made in China.’ It was in Kramer’s room.”

“A present for his daughter, I’d guess.”

“Do you remember Ensayo de un Crimen? They kill this really hot blonde and burn her as if she were a doll.” He stroked the Barbie’s hair with an intense fetishism. “This is pure Buñuel, God damn it!”

Carmona smiled in the distance, with that infinite commiseration we concede to the crazies chance has placed in our own family.

Palencia insisted: a blonde could provide a Buñuelian clue.

Two days later a blonde entered the picture, but not of the type that Palencia expected. Sharon came to look for her husband, or to resign herself to not finding him. She wore Bermuda shorts, as if we were in some tropical location with palm trees, and a pair of Nikes that were probably athletic but looked orthopedic. I had lunch with her and emerged with a headache. She was annoyed that there were so many tables for smokers and that Mexicans only knew about yellow American cheese (apparently there is also a white kind, which is healthier). Her nutritional obsessions were pathological (taking into account how fat she was). Her cultural habits suffered from a diet no less severe. I asked her if Kramer’s kidnapping had been on CNN.

“We don’t have a TV: it’s a frontal lobotomy,” she answered.

She gave me the latest issue of Point Blank. There was a piece on Kramer: “Desaparecido: Missing.” I disliked Sharon so much that I didn’t find it offensive to read in her presence. Among photos from his youth and testimonies from friends, the reporter was invoked as a martyr for the freedom of expression. Mexico City provided a baleful locale for the piece, a labyrinth governed by satraps and Aztec deities who should never have emerged from the underworld. What horrors had the eyes of Samuel Kramer, so avid for truth, contemplated?

I was annoyed by the journalist’s instant beatification, but I was on his side as soon as Sharon said:

“Sammy is no action hero. Do you know how many laxatives he takes a day?” She paused; I didn’t find it strange that she would add: “We were about to split up. I see a very strange angle in all of this. Maybe he ran off with someone else, maybe he’s afraid of my lawyers.”

I didn’t have a very high opinion of Kramer, but his wife was offering an argument for self-kidnapping. She was convinced that in acting without the smallest emotional consideration she was fulfilling an ethical duty. During dessert, for which there tragically were no low-calorie cookies, she explained her rights. If she succumbed to emotion, all would be lost. She had sued Point Blank for publishing the story and photos from the family album without her consent. This diminished her chances at selling the rights for a miniseries when her husband’s disappearance was confirmed. By the way: they’d never accept a Mexican screenwriter in Hollywood. Would I be interested in a position as advisor? Never had a refusal tasted so sweet.

“I am Kramer’s friend,” I lied.

The nightmare of spending more time with Sharon was only offset by Katy. She proved her love by taking Sharon to buy crafts at the Bazar del Sábado and locating twenty-four-hour pharmacies near her hotel.

One night, as I dozed with the news on, the phone rang.

“I’m here.” Hearing that tremulous voice meant understanding, with horrible simplicity, “I’m alive.”

I put on my shoes and crossed the street. Samuel Kramer was standing next to the cement sphere. He looked thinner. Even at night, his eyes emanated anxiety. I hugged him. He wasn’t expecting the gesture; after a start, he cried on my shoulder. A man walking an Afghan hound saw us and altered his course.

Kramer was wearing the same plaid shirt. He smelled of rancid leather. In between sobs he told me they had let him go in a taxi. He didn’t remember my address, but he couldn’t forget the phrase ‘Parque de la Bola.’ I looked at the cement sphere and distinguished the tenuous outlines of the continents. For the first time I realized that ‘la bola’ was the world.

We went to my apartment. Kramer had spent weeks with his head under a hood, in a two-by-three-meter cubicle. They fed him only cereal, and on one occasion they mixed it with psychedelic mushrooms. They removed the hood once a day, to let him contemplate an altar with various images: Christian, pre-Hispanic, postmodern. A Virgin of Guadalupe, an obsidian knife, some sunglasses. During the endless afternoon hours he could hear a soundtrack playing “The End” by the Doors, and behind him someone imitating Jim Morrison’s pained, barbiturate-soaked voice. A torture which nevertheless had allowed him to understand the Mexican apocalypse. During his mushroom trip, the altar’s adornments obtained a logic he’d forgotten and had to recover.

Kramer’s eyes darted from side to side, as if he were looking for a third person in the room. I didn’t have to look for him. It was obvious who the kidnapper was.

Gonzalo Erdiozabal greeted me in slippers, big hairy things, a souvenir from some trip through Alaska.

I arrived shaken, too many things churning in my interior, that zone that I avoided so carefully when writing screenplays. My words, I must admit, did not reflect the complexity of my emotions.

“How could you? Do you think you’re God?”

I was referring to his fifteen years of false friendship, his romance with Renata, the synopsis in which he portrayed me with neither consideration nor warning, Kramer’s kidnapping, in which he toyed with our destinies like some sick puppeteer. I was referring to all of this, but I let him interpret my questions however he felt like it.

Gonzalo sat down on a couch covered in little rugs. Everything in his apartment alluded to remote tribes and to its occupant’s zeal for textiles. There were Huichol weavings in colors that reproduced the electric visions of peyote, and pictures by an ex-girlfriend who’d had her fifteen minutes of fame by weaving horsehair through Amatl paper. Those equestrian codices, intended to symbolize the mounted colonization of Indian territory, had aged poorly; they lacked meaning this far removed from the protests and celebrations that repudiated and commemorated the Fifth Centennial of the Conquest; moreover, they had a putrid look to them.

“Relax. Do you want a cup of tea?”

I didn’t give him a chance to serve me his witch doctor’s potion. I looked away, toward the poster of Jim Morrison. The kidnapping had his signature. How could he have been so crude? He knelt Kramer before a syncretic altar that maybe—the idea made me shudder—had figured into my screenplay. In labored, sincere, awkward sentences I spoke of his infinite thirst for manipulation. He had used us as pawns in an absurd game. We could go to jail! Natividad Carmona salivated at every potentially false sentence I spoke, Martín Palencia incorporated me into his Buñuelian criminal fantasies. If he didn’t give a shit about me he could’ve at least thought about Tania. A bitter taste rose to my mouth. I didn’t want to look at Gonzalo. I focused on the arabesques in the carpet.

“You’re right. Forgive me.” He said those words again that only served to incriminate him. “I’m not asking you to understand me. But every story has its inverse. Let me speak—that’s all.”

He reminded me that on Kramer’s last visit he had invented Mexican rituals upon my request. It was I who’d gotten him involved with the reporter, in the capacity of impresario. Kramer had taken a liking to him and announced that he was coming back to Mexico, even before he’d told me (that’s why Gonzalo was neither surprised nor interested when I told him the journalist was in the city). Was it a sin for him to establish relations with Kramer on his own? No, of course not. Samuel confided in him. He was going through a divorce, he was losing his ability to capture a country in permanent turmoil, he knew his piece on Frida Kahlo was plagued with inaccuracies (the fact checker at the magazine had let them through in order to blackmail him later). I didn’t blame Gonzalo for the farce. I was the source of the distortions, I’d fed Kramer all sorts of tall tales in order to satiate his thirst for exoticisms. On his second visit, Kramer decided to see me, but only to confirm the things he couldn’t write. My words marked the limits of credibility. That’s why the journalist was so evasive in Los Alcatraces; he didn’t distrust the other tables, but rather what he had in front of him. Thanks to Gonzalo’s plan, the kidnapping had submerged him in the reality he so longed for. The experiences he’d had were of a devastating authenticity. And for that, risks needed to be taken. Sometimes, in war, a unit eliminates one of its own troops. The American army calls this “friendly fire.” Did I know that? Of course not. Nevertheless, this had been a war without casualties.

“Do you know who paid Kramer’s ransom?” He made a pause that I was unwilling to interrupt. “His magazine.”

Gonzalo had spoken with the editor of Point Blank and presented him with the situation as frankly as he did now. Samuel Kramer was the subject of an experiment in participatory journalism. If nobody found out about the scam, the piece could be a success. If they refused to pay, the reporter would die. Obviously this last bit was false, a threat meant to give the arrangements some third world credibility. The negotiation lasted two days. There was no problem in establishing the total amount of the ransom; nevertheless, once the editor agreed to have his writer suffer through a controlled torment, he demanded that it last several weeks. He had to undergo the rigors in earnest, until every single harassment found a place in his prose. The editor had supervised Kramer’s psychological torture; he came to Mexico, visited the stronghold, and heard the apocalyptic rendition of “The End.” Kramer got what he wanted, a custom-made hell, a subject for his report. Gonzalo had simply been the facilitator. One last thing: the ransom money had gone to a nonprofit helping the poor children of Chiapas under the supervision of the Swedish government. The second guy in the ski mask had been a colleague at the NGO.

So much philanthropy nauseated me, but Gonzalo had one more donation to make. I was gearing up to mention Renata when the phone started ringing. Kramer’s cell phone was on the coffee table. With a theatrical slowness, Gonzalo answered the call.

“It’s for you.” He held out the receiver.

It was Katy. Gonzalo had given her the number. She was just calling to tell me that she loved me very much and that she missed the wrinkles in my eyes, like a gunman’s, one who kills a lot of people but is still one of the good guys.

Katy’s voice silenced any mention of Renata. What I hated most about Gonzalo was not what he’d tried to take away from me and I was going to lose anyway, but what I owed him, those warm, disjointed words that Katy spoke into my ear.

Then I demanded that he give me the synopsis.

I left without the melodrama of slamming the door, but with the spite of leaving it open.

I heard from Kramer in the days that followed. He was exuberant: his piece had been a huge success and had been nominated for the unbeatable Meredith NonFiction Award. What’s more, he’d made up with Sharon. The trip to Mexico had been an indispensable purgatory for the both of them.

As for my own writing, I tried to be faithful to Gonzalo’s synopsis. The approach disgusted me, a bundle of narcissistic affectations, but apparently that was what everyone expected of me. Only by imitating an unpleasant alien voice did I start to show the interior depths that Renata had once attributed to me.

I never dared talk to her about her possible tryst with Gonzalo. My vengeance lay in handing her the tennis ball that came out of the Chevrolet; hers, in having forgotten the whole affair (she placed it distractedly in a fruit bowl, like one more apple, and started speaking in tedious detail about Tania’s gums). Katy developed touching complicities with my daughter, although she never understood our interest in Keiko. News of the whale was sad: she didn’t know how to hunt and hadn’t found a mate out at sea. She was happier in her Mexico City aquarium. The only good news was that she would soon star in the movie Free Willy. “You could write the script!” said Tania, with that insufferable confidence her mother had conferred on me years before. Katy was right: the time had come to forget the black whale. The last episode related to Kramer took place one afternoon when I wasn’t doing anything but smoking and looking out the window, watching the Parque de la Bola and the children who rollerbladed around the world in miniature. The sky glowed clean. The forest fires had finally stopped. A rustling sound made me turn toward the door. Someone had slipped an envelope into the apartment.

I guessed the content by its weight. I opened the envelope with utmost care. Next to the dollars, there was a note from Gonzalo Erdiozabal: “My companions at the NGO have asked that you accept this compensation for your help.”

Half an hour later the phone rang twenty times. The air was charged with the tension of unanswered calls. I didn’t pick up.

—Translated from the Spanish by David Noriega

More from Issue 8

Issue 8 Recessional

The first intellectual consequence of the economic crisis was to undermine neoliberalism as the age’s default ideology.

Issue 8 Recessional

“Gentrification”: the term evokes the political and mental life of two generations of city-dwellers.

Issue 8 Recessional

A few months ago a lot of people thought the world was coming to an end.

Issue 8 Recessional

If the household organization could be altered simply in the interest of desire, then anything could be changed.

Issue 8 Recessional

To buy credit protection on US government debt now costs you more than to buy credit protection on Campbell’s Soup!

Issue 8 Recessional
Don’t Say No
Issue 8 Recessional
So Little to Remember
Issue 8 Recessional
Cinema é Luxo
Issue 8 Recessional
The Rise of the Neuronovel
Issue 8 Recessional
A Broken Window
Issue 8 Recessional

Surely no other magazine has begun with so little excitement.

Issue 8 Recessional

Reading Craigslist, I feel as though I am dipping my cup straight into the swift-flowing stream of human need.

Issue 8 Recessional

To admit to a fondness for, say, the Climax Blues Band is embarrassing in a more complicated way than it would at first seem.

Issue 8 Recessional

Most people talking about the internet are reluctant to see the forest for the trees. What forest? they ask. Look at all these…

More by this Author

Issue 9 Bad Money

The Mexican mode of governance transformed our slang into a grammar of shadows.