The Color of Dried Chipotle

SIMAPAG is the name of the water system in my colonial city. It means Sistema de Agua Potable y Alcantarillado de Guanajuato—the system for the distribution of water and the re-distribution of sewage. Generations of workers have rushed continuously to neighborhoods where one fluid has encroached upon the other.

By chance, I met a man in my dilapidated writing café who had worked for the city for years and now, in his retirement, was the sole and entirely unknown historian of the city’s darker waterways.

Luis is addicted to both coffee and history. His father Juan Gabriel began working for the city in 1916 at the age of seventeen. He carried a heavy iron pry bar and a shovel and walked along behind his boss, both of them responding to the shrieks of this señora or that who reported that sewage was pouring into her home.

Arturo was not as smart as his young helper Luís but had the grace to defer to the boy in matters of which direction things flowed in and other problems of physics. Soon, in the middle of the night—since that was when they worked—it was Arturo that went for a bag of cement and some sand, while Luís puzzled over the location of pipes and began breaking open the alley. When he lifted a chunk of stone over the area he surmised had failed, he brought the lantern closer and observed the movement around the leak that flowed away from the concrete pipe and into the neighboring house, in whose door stood the woman that had fetched them to the disaster in the first place.

She stood with her rebozo around her shoulders, complaining about the leak, the rain, the dark, the speed of their progress, and the fools that were spreading revolution through the state.

“They should hang them all,” she said. “Shoot their children and rape their wives. God will burn them in hell, you wait and see.”

Luís kept his opinions to himself. On his one night off each week, he carried weapons through the allies, always toward dawn when even the police were asleep.

As the woman ranted, he held the lantern closer to the broken pipe, where everything was moving much the way he himself did at night. Below ground, so to speak. Except that they were the color of chipotle, or burnt sienna as a painter friend said—and he Luís was as brown as a small Mexican horse. They had feelers, probably to find their way within the darkness as they ate human shit, fighting over the best pieces as those slid down the pipe, flushed by a bucket of water in a house higher up the alley or, in this case, by the runoff from the rain.

The woman’s house was actually quite fine, her rebozo expensive and glimmering in the light of the lantern, her mouth moving, saying things now about him and Arturo who she said had been there before and didn’t bother to wash, and how much education had he Luís ever bothered to acquire to advance himself. Or did he maybe think he would join the Revolution and come and murder her in her bed, carefully lifting her cat Lobo to one side before he plunged his knife into her breast.

The insects swarmed in hole in front of his eyes, red and quick in the lamplight. He could attach little messages to their backs, that would tell others like him where this lady lived. Or, more importantly, where weapons were needed. Winchesters, Springfields and Mausers. Underneath the city teemed a billion possible messengers, moving where no one could see them, carrying information on how to penetrate the city and pierce its heart like in the bullring.

He watched closely. The hated insects seemed to pulse and hop as one. Now, now and now. Arturo or someone else was approaching. The bugs knew ahead of time. That too could be useful when the city tried to defend itself against him and his fellow revolutionaries.

Arturo set down the cement, covered with a tarp against the drizzle. They mixed it with sand and fluid from the broken pipe and made the repair, replaced the stones, picked up the lantern and left—with the woman calling after them that they were as worthless as the people who were plotting to take over the city.

“Cucarachas!” she yelled after them. “Cucarachas!”

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