You don’t remember how you got to the hospital district in southern Roma. Whether by taxi or metro or foot doesn’t matter. What matters is that you’ve made it this far. Roma, the hipster neighborhood they called home in the middle of the twentieth century. Already almost seventy years ago.
You’re disoriented. Don’t know which way to go. Straight north or perhaps northwesterly toward the first site, which, by the way, no longer exists and yet still must be visited, must be first on the list. The space must still be passed through despite nothing remaining of all that remains in Mexico City of their time here.
Orizaba #210. You got the address from the death report. That document that stared at you every time you opened a web browser for the past six months. Foreign Service Form No. 192: REPORT OF THE DEATH OF AN AMERICAN CITIZEN. All caps right there at the top of the page. Typewritten text, handwriting, at least seven stamps, like bruises, and an embossed seal from the embassy.
An unwritten drama of a junkyqueer husband just back from a trip to South America in search of the ultimate high with a much younger male lover. Father of two, a daughter from her first marriage and a son they shared. Neither child would reach the age their mother was when she was killed.
Multiple bottles. One report says thirty. All hidden away in a closet. No witnesses, according to the official police report. Here is Bill’s first great fiction. (Two witnesses will come forward years later. A poet. And a younger man who’s also newly returned from further south…. Yes, folks, he shot and killed her in front of the boy who begrudgingly gave him sex.) Occupation: Housewife. AmericannativebornfromAlbany. Barely enough of a history or biography to warrant the one-page document. All the information could fit on one line.
You’ve read the police report, the American Foreign Service Report, a handful of newspaper articles, in Spanish and in English. You still can’t get over the fact that her occupation is listed as “housewife.” Her next of kin: both her husband and her father-in-law, her husband’s father, a resident of St. Louis. Cause of death: “‘Bullet wound penetrating cranium.’” The stacked quotation marks seem to erode all meaning. They open up every statement to each statement’s unstated question, a question that serves as the foundation for the possibility of ever making a statement in the first place.
You walk past the place that doesn’t exist anymore. A place that only exists as a question mark erased from history. Though you notice next door what appears to be a building from the same time of the building no longer there. A lost twin, kept as a footnote to a lost reference. Multiple photos with the camera on your phone. Across the street—the view they would’ve seen. Her last look out a window through the opacity of time.
They would’ve taken their coffee on the balcony. The spiraled columns to give the illusion of stability. The arched stonework to give the feel of domesticity. Lattice steelwork of arrows outlined by downward pointing triangles. The kids would’ve played there at the edge of safety, tracing their tiny fingers along the metal lines. You can almost see her standing just inside, beyond the sun’s reach, standing there in the shadows puffing a cigarette in silence. Wondering just what the hell she’s doing in Mexico anyway. Oh yeah: running from the law. The heat was on in New Orleans. Time to get out of the kitchen.
Did it really say thirty bottles? Take one down and pass it around. “En un closet, no menos de treinta botellas vacías.” Even with your stunted high school Spanish you can make out the meaning. But you’ve skipped over the alcohol bottles mentioned earlier, those not hidden away in a closet. There are four empty bottles on a table. Oso Negro gin. Thirty-four bottles in all. Empty. Take one down…
From the Orizaba address you walk north. Though there’s no reason to think she would’ve walked this way that last time. It’s almost romantic to think of her heading toward the park that early September in 1951. It was a Thursday. Is that why, you wonder, Thursday has always felt to you as if a door had been left open, as if an attic window were left ajar? The high was 64° Fahrenheit, or 18° Celsius, that day. (You’ve read the historical weather reports. You’ve done your research.) Rain in the forecast. It was a windy day.
All the more reason she probably took a more direct route to that other apartment. Unless she somehow had her own premonition that this was it. In which case, a leisurely stroll in the mist and wind of the early evening makes more sense.
La única miscelánea. Funny name for a shop. In a dilapidated blue building. Beautiful stonework and metalwork around the tiny private balconies. Another building, but this one’s lilac. The buildings and their colors would’ve all been here when she walked these streets living out the implied existence of a housewife at the time. A poem painted onto the façade of another building. A row of painted marigolds, orange and red, as the bottom border, a single helix of barbed wire as the top. The mural is new, but the building is old enough to have caught her glance more than once.
Today’s rain has already come and gone. It will rain again later. Leaves scuttle across the pavement’s reticulated hand-shaped brick pattern at the park on Orizaba at Zacatecas. A sweeper tries to corral them into a corner. Her broom looks like a witch’s—twigs tied to a pole. More besom than broom. Did she ever speak to the woman who swept this park all those years ago while her children played near the fountain? They say she spoke Spanish. She attended Barnard College. She was educated. They say she matched her husband’s intellect perfectly.
The fountain is still. The pool’s surface faithfully reflects back the overcast sky above. It reflects the history of Lake Texcoco and the nearby multifeathered village of Aztacalco, the House of Herons. Across its surface you can make out shadows of shallow lake beds and tiny islands and the lost chinampa farms. There are no drug-fueled shouts of pure joy today beneath the trees. No hallucinogenic nirvana achieved today on the bench. Let’s leave enlightenment surrounded by succulents beneath pines reaching up toward the sky for another day.
Turning left at Guanajuato, you pass galleries and pastry shops. A chocolatera invites you in with a smile. Chocolate with chili on your breath as you leave. Past murals and brightly painted purple walls, you notice a snarl of telephone lines and electrical cable overhead. At Monterrey you start back north. A block more and you see the café Krika’s. Beneath the name on the awning, and in quotation marks, another genitive name: “Bounty’s.” A doubly-possessive, double-named place, and the third stop on this makeshift tour.
This building shows no adornment. No stonework or steel lattice embellish the plain walls facing the streets. It’s a sickly tubercular yellow. Though it appears as if someone once had the idea to paint it a worse white but only got as far as the top row of windows. Which window was it all those years ago?
Which window of which room? Your will to research only went so far. A tiny speck of mystery still remains. You think you glimpse it just out of the corner of your eye.
Huberto, the current owner, sees you through the window. He watches you take a look around. He calls out to you, knowing why you’re here, what you came for. He pulls you into his café and tells you the tale of the Bounty. You strain to listen and translate his words. You catch most of what he’s saying.
He points you to the two photographs on the wall. In one, a lanky American between Andy Warhol and Mick Jagger. In the other, the same man but with Patti Smith. That one’s a copy of one presumably taken by Robert Mapplethorpe. These are celebrity photographs, of a man much older and more famous than the American who had hung out here all those years ago. Huberto thinks you’re here for him, the celebrity. You smile politely, not knowing how to correct him.
He uses the universal gesture for drunkenness, too much alcohol, continuing the story of the American writers and the Bounty. He makes another gesture, one that can only be read as to shoot one’s wife in the head. Everyone in the café understands immediately. There is an audible acknowledgment. Then he points up, indicating where it took place. All eyes look up toward the ceiling as if you could see anything more.
You thank him. You feel obligated to order a drink or a meal, but you don’t. He doesn’t pressure you, doesn’t suggest it at all. You could probably eat. You have a ways to go until the end. But not here. You only see the bullet hole in her pretty head. Upstairs. After more hesitation, you thank him again before heading out to the street.
You take a car to Panteón Americano, the graveyard further north of the city. It’s November 2. The cemetery is abuzz with activity. You purchase flowers from a vendor near the entrance. Some type of bright pink lily, mostly unopened, unbloomed, wrapped in newspaper. Your fingers smudge the inky print and photos. You walk the muddy road. You read that her grave was opposite the main entrance. There’s some kind of wall where they put the bodies if no one cares for the grave. A place for the most unfortunate.
Canciones and accordion notes hang in the air. You pick up a few words. You recognize viviendo and te amo. Children giggle in the distance, though all of the children you see nearby are somberly sitting with their families or diligently sweeping the dust from tombstones.
Cross-shaped cacti line the paths. A tía curls her eyelashes. Recorded music competes with live musicians. Someone takes a scouring pad to the marble. She goes over the top of the tomb. Faded photographs of those buried long ago. More succulents in the shape of a cross.
Your eyes skim over drooping Hebrew letters. A guadalupana Mary fades into her plaster halo background. She looks more stegosaurus than saint. A car horn honks on the perimeter. The pungent smell of marigolds and cleanser overpowers the incense in the air.
Cars drive past. A group of musicians serenade the dead and the living who remain. There are so many flowers. A voice trills over the strummed strings of a guitar. A group of three girls, small children, occupy their time by writing letters, practicing cursive on top of the chiseled white stones.
Petals of marigolds outline a grave. More smells of cleanser and bleach. Poinsettias the size of trees—seven, eight feet high—throw their shadows across the squat rosebushes. The poinsettias are at least nine feet tall. Maybe taller. Puddles of rainwater gather at the edge of white marble near the walkway. Mud-smeared cobblestones pull you deeper into the cemetery.
More ants. You don’t remember seeing ants like this since you were a child. Big ants. Black. Magnificent mound-builders. They don’t bother the people, and the people leave them alone. The ants and the people mirror the relationship between the living and the dead. Two orders of existence that go about their ways trying not to interfere too much with the other.
A whispered word between a man and a woman. So quiet the living cannot hear. A child’s voice breaks the solemnity. Children in skull masks hold hands. Sugar skulls sit atop a headstone. Cut paper waves in the breeze. The song turns merry as families prepare their meals.
At the back of the American Cemetery you find the grave. The last and only sign that they were ever here. She’s buried in a wall. A place for paupers. Unvisited and undermourned. It’s the Day of the Dead, a day just for her, and you hand her your flowers, you prop them against the wall, and turn around to go.
Writer and translator Frank Garrett lives in Dallas. He is a contributing editor at Minor Literature[s]. http://www.mycrashcourse.net @limmoraliste