Smart Women

Ponciano is the head of the demolition crew the city hired to remove the seven-story building that is across from the Café Nada. The Café Nada is where I write each morning. Ponci is married to Lupita, a lovely solid Otomí woman with black eyes and amber skin. She is humble, but not common. She doesn’t read books, but she reasons better than most who do. Her husband Ponci reads, but to no great advantage, according to her. Pouring through the thoughts of people who are not particularly intelligent, she will say, serves little purpose. They use too many “that’s” and not enough “is’s.” That’s how she sees it.

Ponci has read journals on how to drop large buildings in their footprint. The city – a UNESCO Heritage Site and considered the Heidelberg of Mexico – was not interested and preferred to spend many hundreds of thousands of pesos running jackhammers day and night and driving the citizens crazy. But in this case, there was a deadline, and the building, made of concrete and rebar, was not coming down fast enough. The city would lose a contract with La Bohême, a slick restaurant chain for people with money, if the site wasn’t cleared and ready for construction by October 1st. It was already September 15th. The mayor said they would not pay the second half of the city’s contract with Ponci if his crew had not brought the structure down by September 21.

Ponci said he would stop right then, if they weren’t going to pay. The city said they would prosecute him for breach of contract. Ponci said, renegotiate with La Bohême. The city said, you demolish the building, we run the city. Ponci received a letter from the State Government. They were sending inspectors to see if Ponci was complying with state-prescribed safety measures. Ponci replied, they knew perfectly well there were no safety laws, and he would make a citizen’s arrest of anyone who entered the demolition site without his permission. The mayor said, by telephone, there was no such thing as a citizen’s arrest, and he would send the police to preserve order. Ponci replied that the police would need a warrant and show probable cause before stepping on the lot. La Bohême sent a letter to the city newspaper saying they were looking at other sites. That was the 18th, three days before his deadline.

Ponci also read the newspaper, and so, one evening after work, he saw the La Bohême letter. He read it aloud to Lupita. “Why would anyone give a restaurant chain a French name?” he asked. Lupita said nothing. Ponci picked up one of his journals. Lupita studied him from across the kitchen. He looked up. Her face was as beautiful as it was when he met her at a church dance twenty years ago. She was heavier but perfect in all respects.

She left the room. She returned carrying a box. She set it down on the table, in front of him. The side of the box said detonadores, fuses. He leaned forward and turned back the lid. He looked inside with intense curiosity, as if he didn’t know what it contained. He looked slowly. Lupita was smarter than him. He needed time to catch up.

Finally, he said, “You think we can do it?”

“We can do it, Ponci,” she said.

“How many do we need?”

“People?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“You and me. Maybe get Carlos and David. That’s enough. It’s just getting dark. We can work till dawn.”

He looked at Lupita. He revisited the fact that she usually knew what she was doing. He got up and held her wide, soft body against him. And then he said, “Okay, I’ll make the calls.”

“But don’t we have to drill a lot of holes?” she said, softly in his ear.

“I’ve already drilled them,” he said, back into her ear. “I told the men it was for practice.”

She held him at arm’s length, studying him again.

He winked at her.

At the first gray of dawn, the building was wired – two sticks of Simplex per drill hole, time-delay blasting caps set to weaken the lower columns first, total detonation time six seconds, each explosion timed by a fraction of a second to precede the one above it. All the wires led to a firing station out by the road. There would be no test shot. There would be no consultation with the city.

They told Carlos and David to stand by the detonator box at the firing station. Ponci disconnected the trunk wire to the box, so there would be no mistakes. The red detonation button was recessed. That was a further precaution.

Ponci and Lupita walked through the building one more time.

“You’re good at this, Ponci,” she said. “Maybe reading the journals is a good thing.”

“You’re a wonderful woman,” said Ponci. “You’re smarter than me in just about everything.”

They were on the ground floor, in the middle section.

“Show me how you connect them,” Lupita asked. “All I did was push in the charges.”

Ponci nodded. He disconnected the wiring to one of the foam-covered charges.

“Maybe you should disconnected this whole section,” said Lupita. “Just in case.”

Ponci looked at her. They didn’t really have much time, but he trusted her thinking. He untwisted the wire that connected the entire middle section. He came back to the Lupita. He showed her how to do a connection.

“You try,” he said. “You can do it with ease.”

In that moment, Carlos, out by the road – understandably tired – stumbled on a stray piece of escombro, and went down. The wire that had been disconnected from the detonator box as a precaution shed its security cap and fell back against its contact. Carlos landed on the box. His imitation Swiss Army knife, in a pouch on his belt, angled perfectly into the recessed firing button and depressed the button to the required depth.

Like any early morning mining blast, the rolling shot rattled the city – except that it went on for six seconds. And it was above ground. The structure melted, kneeled, and came down, perfectly, on its footprint. And then everything was quiet again, and the city seemed to keep on sleeping.

A thunderhead of cement dust billowed upward and out. Carlos and David staggered toward the site, gaunt-eyed from embarrassment and horror. They had broken the most important rule of all, which was not to kill the two finest people they knew.

They stopped, swaying, and peered through the dust. The bricks and concrete slabs, with their twisted and snapped rebar, had fallen everywhere – except in the middle of the building, where, inexplicably, the lowest – in the center – room, with thicker walls and ceiling, was still standing. Through an opening, they saw two dust-covered people holding each other, kissing, alternately laughing and crying and, finally, because of what had happened to their ears, shouting endearments to each other too private for anyone to hear.

Which is when Carlos and David decided to go home and sleep. They weren’t paid enough to answer to anyone for what they had done. They also didn’t want to be there when the police arrived. And the mayor, and the newspapers, and, soon enough – because that’s the way things went – the agents for La Bohême, safety inspectors who might actually exist, and – worst of all – the powerful governor of the State, who might or might not cite them all as criminals, depending on how the event turned out to reflect on him.

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