Yesterday evening, the Guanajuato writers gathered to read from their work. I read an excerpt from a novel in progress, in which a corrupt, fired Mexican policeman, who was once entrusted with guarding Trotsky and Frida Kahlo on a special armored train from Tampico to Mexico City in 1937, searches for his son in the chaos of Tampico, on the eve of the nationalization of Mexican oil. In the midst of domestic and international intrigue, a question arises: Can a corrupt man also be good and accomplish good things?
The launch man cut the engine and we drifted up to landing under the railroad bridge, where the four strikebreakers had almost had their way with Mignon—the young striker, who had been dressed as a man, but was not one. Several of us stepped forward and climbed out. And others, who had been waiting, stepped onto the launch and took our places. I stood and watched it pull away, lingering for a moment in the Evinrude’s blue exhaust, listening as the motor faded downriver.
I was now only a few blocks from the center of town. When I emerged from under the bridge, the old woman with the white cat was again sitting on her steps as she had been before. I waved and got a nod back. On a whim, I left the path and walked over to her shanty, greeting her and slowing down while I was still ten meters away, to cushion my approach.
I’ve had a lot of experience interviewing witnesses and possible suspects, and here I was approaching an old woman living in a shack at the edge of a creek in the underbelly of Tampico’s city center.
Still, I took out my photo of Rey and held it up to her, not too sure how well she could see.
“Have you seen this man? He’s my son, and I’m looking for him.”
It took her a while to shift her gaze from me to the photo. The white cat slipped off her lap and went and sat in the shanty’s doorway. She watched me from there, trying to decide how much of a threat I was.
The woman turned to see where her cat had gone.
“I think she’s afraid of me,” I said.
The woman turned back to me. Her voice was raspy as if she had been a heavy smoker. I saw no yellow on her arthritic fingers.
“Should she be?”
I smiled and shook my head. “I’m not a bad person.”
“That’s your boy?”
“Those men before, under bridge, were strikebreakers.”
She looked down at the photo again. “Did you save the young man?”
“The big woman in the launch came along at the right time and saved both of us.”
“Are you police?”
“I am.” I brought out my badge. I didn’t feel too bad lying to her. The heralded protector of Trotsky and Frida, now in disrepute.
She studied it. “I don’t read too well.”
I waited. Sometimes, with old people, you just have to wait. The white cat decided to approach and sat about three feet away and said something to the woman.
I nodded. I put the badge away.
“I’ve seen your boy, but I don’t remember where.”
A chill ran down my spine. The remark threw me off. I also did believe her.
I humored her with a condescending smile. “Do you remember when?”
“On the trolley. I went to see my daughter.”
“Where does she live?
“Arbol Grande. I take the trolley and get off at Zaragoza.”
Inside, I was shaking my head. “When was this?”
Her face went blank. I tried to help her. “Did he stay on the trolley?”
“Most men carry babies facing forward. Women carry them facing inward.”
I tried to make out where she was going.
“That’s how I remember. And you don’t see men carrying babies during the week. That’s how I remember.
I humored her. “Which direction was he going?”
She nodded. The white cat rubbed against her legs.
“You got off at Zaragoza?”
She nodded. “That’s where my daughter lives. Two blocks in.”
I showed her the photo again. She studied it. “Yes, I’m quite sure that’s him.”
Then she studied me. She had small white cloud in her left eye.
“Did you even know he had a baby?”
I shook my head.
“I didn’t think so. He was very gentle with the baby. You don’t see that that often. He’s a good father. I think he had something like a briefcase across his shoulders. That means he’s not an oil worker. Maybe an office somewhere. That’s all I can tell you.”
I shook my head. Openly skeptical. The white cat jumped up onto her lap and lay down with her back to me.
“Well, I thank you anyway….”
“You son has small scar over his right eye.”
That hit me, and I tightened up all over. It was a moment before I could speak.
“That could be him. We had a bicycle accident. He sat a little seat in front of the handlebars. He stuck his foot in the spokes. We flipped and I went right over him. We landed in a pile.”
The corners of her mouth turned up in a crooked smile.
“But how do you know he’s not an oil worker?”
“My husband was an oil worker. He’s dead now. Men working for the oil companies don’t carry babies around during the week. They don’t carry briefcases.”
I switched back to detective. “What time of day was it?
“Because I visit my daughter in the morning, and the baby was wrapped up against the chill.”
“Where do you think he was going?”
“Maybe home, maybe to the baby’s grandmother.”
“That would be my wife.”
She looked up at me. The crooked smile reappeared. Her left eye was weepy as well as cloudy.
“Or someone else’s wife.”
I stared at her.
“The baby has a mother—if she’s lucky. These are difficult times.”
I was having trouble following.
“And the mother has a mother. Or a sister. Or an aunt. Or someone they hire to look after her.”
I caught the pronoun. I suppose my mouth hung open a little.
Her boney hand rose up and she tapped once on her thin hair. “If I remember correctly, she had a bow on her little head.”
The old woman stroked the white cat, pulled gently at one of its ears.
I wasn’t quite finished. “May I ask how it was you saw him so clearly?”
“I sat down beside them. He let me hold the child.”
I stared at her. “Look, my name is Tomás. The child’s grandmother’s name is Mariana.”
“One of the grandmothers. My name is Marta. My husband was a union man. He had a lot of scars. One from a bullet. And then there was a final bullet. Your son is lucky. He has a beautiful child. You need to stay away from those four men.”
“Do you know them?”
“They’re foreigners and Mexicans. They come in from the outside. They carry guns. Guns make scars. The union—the Reds not the Whites—have taken many scars. Like my husband.”
I nodded in sympathy.
“And you…you should scour every Hidalgo trolley stop from here to the beach…until you find the rest of your family.”