Tag: Mexican short fiction

The Victim of Words

I don’t know how many of you can say this, but I spent a week in a famous psychiatric ward in Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital called Bulfinch Seven, a restricted area that was also sometimes reserved for the victims of words.

I had parked my rental car on a hill while visiting from Mexico, and I had neglected to turn my front wheels left and then roll back, anchoring the back of the wheels against the curb. A policeman had pulled up beside my car, a Toyota Prius, and asked me my name as he wrote out the ticket. I thought it a good moment to make a point about his more than likely monoligualism and I said to him, “You mean, Cómo te llamas, come lagañas! don’t you?”—What’s your name, go eat eye boogers!”

The policeman said, ” You can tell me in English, or I can increase the fine—for civic insolence.”

I doubted that there was a law having to do with “civic insolence,” and so I said. “Qué te importa, Mr. Policeman, tu hermana, la gordota!”—What’s it to you, Mr. Policeman, your sister, the great big fat one?

What started out as irritation on his face changed and became a detached, even scientific look. And so I thought it wise to inquire, “Qué te pasa, naranjada?”—What’s up, orangeade?

I had noticed—I admit, too slowly—the man’s complexion, and thought he might be Sicilian from the North End, or a Sikh from the South. And as my fortunes would have it, he answered me in—of all things—Spanish.

“Nada, nada, limonada.—Nothing, nothing, lemonade!” he said, with a perfect accent.

He was smiling, but still looked detached—a fact that gave me pause.

“I’m going to ask you to get into my pinche patrulla,” he said—in a reasonable tone—get into the goddamn patrol car.

Hard to explain, but I gave him one more blast. Plus, I didn’t intend to get into his pinche patrulla. After all, I was on my way to a reading—therefore, by implication, a writer of possibly some note. And so I gave him my cleverest shot.

“Güero, güerumbo, de un pedo te tumbo, de dos te levanto y de tres te retumbo!”—Pale face güerumbo (gware-rumbo, a nonsense word that gives sound and cadence), I can drop you with one fart, pick you up with the second and put you on the ground again with the third.

Not exactly the most delicate school boy taunt, but I was, I suppose, much worked up about reading from my novel and about the fawning looks I hoped to elicit from exciting young women half my age.

Before I knew it, he had cuffed my hands behind me and had me—the real güero güerumbo—in the back seat of his patrol car. And that is how I landed in Bulfinch Seven.

But it so happened that my agent—that’s literary agent—had driven up behind us and then followed us to the Bulfinch looney bin where they gave me a small pink pill. With a few calls on his iPhone my agent, one Henry Salisbury, arranged to have my waiting audience of twelve people shifted to the hospital, where I—now a calmer self—read to them and to the rest of the patients from my novel about a modern detective sent north into the United States to try to retrieve territories stolen by that country. Though their applause was not as strong as I would have liked, and everyone in my original audience was at least sixty, one unofficial attendee sitting in the back of the ward clapped with some enthusiasm—who was none other than my arresting officer, who later told me he was a distant relative of Santa Ana, the president-general that lost one leg to the French in the Pastry War of 1838, called himself His Most Serene Highness, blocked American invaders at Saltillo in 1847, delayed obese General Winfield Scott’s advance on Mexico City from Veracruz and, in the end, essentially lost half of Mexico to the Americans with the Treaty of Guadalupe in 1848—for fifteen million dollars.

Kaliman and the Madness of Writers

Kaliman is a walking wreck, with hair like a bush, swarthy from complexion, some of it dirt, and of this I’m sure, he has identified me as a writer—since he is one, too—and is trying to infect me with all his insanity. His eyes are squinty from too much thinking. My mother would have faulted him for his dirty ankles, more for his lack of socks. “Were you brought up in a barn?” she would have said with her gentle scold. I’ve known him for thirteen years. He was brought up on the street, and apart from cows.

Today he spoke to me for the first time. I was sitting in a local wreck of a café, sipping moras y yoghurt, blueberries and yogurt, a berry-like tea for Mexican yuppies. The window was open to the street, and I sat behind an iron railing, thank god, a little below the slanted callejón where he was standing. He brandished some writing at me and said some unwritten words. I ignored him, like a dessert we’re wise to decline. So little separates us from Kaliman and, as much as I would like to have broken our thirteen-year silence, I did not. There are traditions to uphold. Plus, dementia often waits for us down the line. A little preview baked by Kaliman might have been ahead-of-time contagious. One bite of him could have been enough. One glance at his scribbling bereft of words as we know them could have destroyed my own—all part of his plan to induct me into the Hall of Insane.

Clearly, someone had told him I was a writer like him. And now he wanted to change that as well, infect it, so that my words collapsed into kuneiformed rubble like his own? But, hold on. I could be just as devious and put an end to harassment of this sort. I stood up, collected my Apple things and beckoned with my index digit to coax him into a cyber café, where I plopped him down in front of a computer—not that I cared one way or another whether he knew what one was. I showed him how to touch the keys, my account, meaboutme@gmail.comto an old and unresponsive friend, and only inserted a few words of my own. Camel, Allah, NSA-Great Satan. The rest of it looked like rat droppings fonted in pungent rows.

Some time passed while the words flitted through Our Coaxial Who Art in Heaven, and then the FBI visited me—its Mexican cell. The snoop cartel.

“Did you write this?” they asked, at my mesquite door, showing me a stamped and dated official copy of the time-sensitive drivel.

“No, my friend Kaliman did,” I replied—as truthfully as truth allowed.

“Who is Kaliman?” they asked—taking notes.

I described Taliban—I mean Kaliman—and where to find him, near the Museo de Leyendas, description enough—little visited repository of legends. An institution I thought would list him eventually, once things had passed.

They returned.

“He’s not sane,” they said.

“Who is these days?” I answered, palms outstretched.

“He doesn’t understand the words camel, Allah, USA or Great Satan.”

They looked at me with suspicion, looking for guilt.

“That should be ‘NSA-Great Satan.’ Not ‘USA-Great Satan.’ And written together,” I said, precise from my training as unionized teacher-citizen, California.

“Whatever,” said the less amused of the two.

The seat of his pants was shiny. I could see he is on his way to being Kalimanized. I wondered whether I should tell him, or what.

“You need to be careful,” I say. “He can infect your thinking.”

“Perhaps you’ve infected his,” says Agent Less Amused. “Adding words to his.”

“I have never spoken with him,” I said.

At that moment, Kaliman showed up. Not surprisingly, he had found out where I lived. He brandished a scribble. We were all in danger.

“He’s a writer like me,” I said. “And doesn’t wear socks.”

They tried to examine the page, but Kaliman clutched it, like a raccoon with an egg, and looked at me for help. I smiled at him and told him—breaking my vow of silence—he could trust me and that I would read it for him, without cracking the egg. His eyes brightened, one of them wept a cleansing line down his cheek. I had won his confidence. That much was clear.

I struggle with the first word. “Ben—gha—zi,” I read. “Benghazi,” I said. translating from Kalimandarin to English. “Al…al….al…,” I read.

“Al Qaida?” barked Agent Grouch, with a professional tone and ready to pounce.

“Al—lah,” I completed, nodding and pleased at my code breaker talents.

“It’s clearer now,” I continued. “Allah…be praised…my camel…Benghazi…knows more…about…Libya…than…Obama’s whole Stasi.”

I looked up at them, their darkened Homeric brows.

“That’s what it says, the rest is gibberish,” I said. And then, “I appreciate your trouble….”

“What does it mean?” they asked.

“Who knows?” I said. “The man is mad, as mad as a hatter—without doubt it’s a thing of no substance—of little matter.”

I often rhyme when it’s least appropriate.

Just then, Kaliman did me a favor, plucked the page out of my hands and stuffed it into his gob and, with shark-like pressure of grinding enamel, re-encrypted the code beyond all reach. He picked at his tooth where a phrase had got suck, spit out a glob of something penciled and strutted away, I supposed to re-establish the silence that he had broken between us.

“His brain is limited,” I said, “unlike our own. He must read the paper, AM or Correo or Corazón—all reliable rags. He’s like a parrot and repeats whatever he’s told. Nothing to worry about. Thank god there’s surveillance. I’ll keep you informed if I learn any more. Things that begin with ‘al…’—and words of like clout.”

The FBI said I would be hearing from them, but I never did. It’s possible they read my blog and tap my everything Google or Apple—looking for things like “NSA-Great Satan” and equivalent babble.

As for Kaliman, he avoids me with care, I suspect smelling treachery. And all has returned to its former quiet. I am still un-demented, my writing as well, don’t you think? Everything is good, everything swell. And so, Happy New Year everywhere, there’s nothing more to this, as there wasn’t before. But should more come up, you’ll be able to tell.