When I was five years old, and still in quarantine for the case of tuberculosis I’d picked up in Guatemala the year before, Abuelita, that is my mother’s mother, sent us an orphan girl to be our maid, and this was Flor de Mayo Puac. Her passport and working papers said she was sixteen, but she was pretty positive she was thirteen. In the Guatemala City convent orphanage where Flor had lived since she was six (pretty positive of being six), the nuns had let her celebrate her birthday every May 10, the anniversary of her baptism there, which might actually have been her second baptism, though her father, when he was alive, had never once taken her into a church that she could remember. But the date seemed accurate enough, and not only because of the evidence provided by her name.
She’d lived with her father in the department of Chiquimula, on the desert side of the mountains there where the first of the year’s two or three heavy rains usually fell in April or May, inciting the locusts’ racket, and it was always around that time that her father would suddenly change her age, saying, “Now you are five, mijita,” and then, “Now you are six.” Flor lived in the convent orphanage for seven years, and then one day my grandmother came and picked her.
What had happened was that my mother had left my father when I was one and had taken me back to Guatemala, where I was going to grow up as a rich person, as she had, which is, of course, just one way of putting it. But then I caught TB from one of our maids and we went back to Massachusetts for the better hospitals in Boston, and also because Abuelita had my mother convinced that my illness was punishment from God for having abandoned my father up there, for three years, in the little suburban ranch house on Codrioli Road in Namoset that my mother had never really liked. My father was still living there, alone, when we came home. Me, tubercular, browned by three years of tropical sun and then yellowed by illness, speaking no English, but still—his son. Abuelita, being a devout and ebulliently authoritarian Catholic, was against divorce, but she’d been just as against the marriage. My father is Jewish, and seventeen years older than my mother. He was raised in the poorest Jewish immigrant neighborhoods of Boston.
And because he was never comfortable with the idea of having a maid in the first place, and did not think a thirteen-year-old girl should spend all day housecleaning in a house where there wasn’t all that much to clean, my father decided that Flor should go to school. We were enrolled in the first grade together at the beginning of the next school year, and Flor eventually graduated from Namoset High four years ahead of me, in 1972. After that she won a full scholarship to Wellesley College, which is in the town of the same name, right next to Namoset.
But in 1979 Flor ended up back in Guatemala City, where she was eventually hired to be director of a private orphanage and malnutrition clinic called Los Quetzalitos. On the seventeenth of February, 1983, towards the end of General R”os Montt’s highly successful counterinsurgency campaign, which according to what I’ve read in the papers and elsewhere added tens of thousands of new orphans to Guatemala’s already huge orphan population, Flor was found murdered. She was discovered by some of her orphans lying on her bed in her room at the orphanage just before six in the morning, wearing pajamas, and dead from a single deep knife gash in her throat.
And the very next day the two major Guatemala City dailies came out saying that just two days previous the National Police had uncovered a clandestine safe house for hiding babies—also called a casa de engordes, or fattening house—many of them not even orphans but illegally purchased and even stolen babies, and that they were being kept there until their illegal adoptions could be arranged. That is, until they could be sold to childless couples in Europe and the United States, this apparently being a highly profitable and widespread business in Guatemala and elsewhere in Central America—”a business angle to civil war and violent repression,” as one human rights publication I read phrased it. The newspapers ran photographs of a house full of crowded cribs. And close-up shots of the frightened face of a captured niñera, or nursemaid, who was quoted as saying that her employer, or rather one of her employers but the only one who ever came to the safe house in person, was Flor de Mayo. And the newspapers and police theorized that behind this lay the probable motive for the murder, since Flor couldn’t have run that kind of business all alone: so that it must have been her partners, tipped off somehow about what the niñera had said, who had silenced Flor forever, before the police had been able to procure the order for her arrest. The police said they were searching for these anonymous partners and that justice would be done, not just for the crime of an internecine murder but for the defamation and disgrace that all such baby-selling rings brought upon the patria.
They said that Flor’s job as director of a legal orphanage had merely served her as a front, and as her introduction into the whole business of adoptions. And, as one newspaper put it, it was people like Flor, “a woman of pocos escrúpulos,” few scruples, who were “desprestigiando,” de-prestiging, the entirely honorable and necessary occupation of taking care of orphans and legally finding them loving homes abroad. The newspapers highlighted Flor’s beauty, though not to any specific purpose. And they made very much of the fact that, although she was Guatemalan born, this alone could not account for her corruption as she was a United States citizen who had spent more than half her life in her adopted country and had graduated from one of its most elite colleges for women. Direct U.S. military aid to the Guatemalan military government had been cut off by Congress since 1978 because of the human rights violations, considered the most excessive in the hemisphere, and no one since in Washington who had tried had succeeded in coming up with the right words to persuade Congress to fully turn it back on. But the military, and many in the Guatemalan press, and many Guatemalans who considered themselves patriots, such as my relatives, liked to think of that cutoff as a kind of blanket violation of all Guatemalans’ human rights and as a new and hypocritical form of imperialism, and now the newspapers posed Flor’s case as another form of hypocrisy and imperialism: a highly educated U.S. citizen selling, for personal profit, the surviving victims of the alleged human rights atrocities that North Americans professed to be so concerned about.
It was into that scandal that my father and I flew together, to bring Flor’s body home for burial.
It is something of a long story, what happened those two days in Guatemala, and I will come to it. But I will say that nothing happened to convince us that what the papers and authorities were saying about Flor wasn’t true. Nothing. And it is what I’d more or less believed since, for over a year, about Flor, until the day just over a month ago when Luis Moya Martínez looked me up in Brooklyn, New York, where I was living.
I’d known Moya when I was of elementary school age, from all the summers that my mother and I spent back in Guatemala visiting Abuelita. (Flor stayed home in Namoset all but one of those summers and wanted to, or at least pretended to want to, not that Abuelita would have offered to pay her airfare too. Abuelita had her own maids, no need to bring ours and so on—Except my father had made Flor not just a maid.) Because Guatemalan schoolchildren don’t get their long vacation until October and my mother had her own idea about why attending a Guatemalan private school would be a great thing for me, I was enrolled every summer in the Colegio Anne Hunt, the school that all my cousins have gone to. Moya—and even then everyone but the teachers called him nothing but that—was one of a handful of scholarship students there.
But since then I’d only seen him twice. The summer after my junior year in college I drove down to Guatemala by myself in a Ford Mustang that belonged to my roommate, who was in Italy, where his girlfriend had gone to study art history. He’d told me I could use his car while he was away, though of course taking it down to Central America wasn’t what he’d meant. But he wasn’t the type ever to even notice the mileage on his odometer, and when I got back in August, just days ahead of him, I took it to the car wash and then in our driveway used a sponge and his portable blow-dryer to steam the Mexican tourist stickers off the windows and he never noticed a thing. I’d taken that car for the crazy adventure of it, because I was infatuated then with what just this degree of recklessness might mean about me (though if it meant anything of value, I can’t say I’ve lived up to it since). But mainly I’d gone down to visit Flor. And on the unforgettably chaotic day that the government reversed the direction of all the major one-way avenues in Guatemala City, I ran into Moya in the cake shop—café called Pastelería Hemmings. He was still a university student himself then, studying to be a lawyer at San Carlos, the public university.
Then I saw Moya again, even more briefly, outside La Verbena morgue, where my father and I, accompanied by U.S. Consul Joseph Simms, had gone to claim Flor’s body.
* * *
But when my mother phoned to say that at a Latin American Society of Boston event she’d met a young Guatemalan man who was studying at Harvard now and who said he’d known me at the Colegio Anne Hunt, it didn’t even cross my mind at first that she could mean Moya. I thought I knew what he was doing now: he’d become not a lawyer but a Guatemala City newspaperman. And though I’d never read anything of his and didn’t even know which paper he was working for, my experience of the newspapers there in general, which have to be read to be believed, made it impossible for it even to occur to me that anyone from that background could get accepted into any kind of program at Harvard. Not that I could imagine anyone from Anne Hunt being at Harvard, certainly not any of the boys. (I might as well admit now that Harvard has always been a somewhat touchy subject with me, given my father’s long obsession with the idea that his son should go there, a cause I did not help along very much by graduating from Namoset High with a 62 average, which placed me near the top of the bottom fifth of my class.) The Colegio Anne Hunt is a rich kids’ school, but not one of the very best ones. It isn’t like the American School or even the Colegio Maya, where they have teachers from the States and you have to take an aptitude test to get in or else have parents with enough cuello or pull, something like a supersignificant last name, to buy you in anyway. And of course I remembered that among the boys at Anne Hunt it had always been such a point of privileged macho pride to do badly that most never even graduated unless they went back during the school break to take the special and expensive course that allowed them to. (And allowed Anne Hunt to design her school’s annual graduation ceremony to be as feminine, delicate, and expressive of the same values as high society coming out balls.) So who, in all that crowd of Anne Hunt cabroncitos was at Harvard now? And why would he remember me and be asking my mother for my telephone number?
“A very charming young man, muy elegante, muy bien educado” is how my mother described him over the phone, though I guess she’d say the same about Porky Pig if he was a Latin American at Harvard. She is the vice president of the Latin American Society of Boston this year, which has a floor of a brownstone on Newbury Street as its headquarters, and she told me how she’d met this elegant young “stranger” when, during the milling round over coffee and pastries following a Venezuelan diplomat’s lecture on the intellectual history of Latin America, he’d approached her to ask, completely out of the blue, what had ever happened to the antique electric train that for years had decorated a window of Arrau, our family department store in Guatemala City, at Christmastime. My mother’s laugh over the phone must have matched the one she’d given the stranger then, full of pleasure and surprise over having her family’s business prominence so unexpectedly evoked within earshot of so many of the society’s patrons—real Boston blue bloods, she has often reminded me. Which gave her the chance to recite for the stranger the cheerful and nostalgic homage I of course know by heart: . . . Well yes, claro, that wonderful toy train, her father used to say the elves made it to escape Switzerland, where they’d been enslaved for centuries in an underground cuckoo clock factory. Because it was a Swiss toy train, you see, though her father bought it in a Hong Kong market during his buying trip through the Orient in 1932. Back then Arrau’s toy department must have been the equal of any in the world! General Ubico had no children, of course, but he used to walk over from the National Police just to say hello to her mother and look at the toys. Yes, of course, Ubico was a dictator and that is wrong but the times were so different then and he was a friend of her mother. But that train was special, her father wouldn’t sell it, not even to Ubico. Though unfortunately it ceased to exist the day the Arrau store in Quezaltenango caught fire, she’s sure it was an accident because, you know, why would anyone? caught fire during a student riot coincidentally soon after that train had been brought up there for a special window display of antique toys in honor of Children’s Week in Quezaltenango. Ay no, the treasures, the absolute treasures that were lost in that fire … ! Though of course at Christmas you can still hear the tape recording her father made, the one with bells from Tchaikovsky’s something or other and the Negro opera singer from Belize with a deep, deep voice who her father hired to do the voice of Santa Claus, you can still hear him! The Guatemalan stranger would have nodded with enthusiasm here, would have known of the annual event if not the actual history, would have known that my mother’s brother, Jorge Arrau, still plays that recording over the loudspeakers at Christmas while the little man who plays the part of Santa Claus stands on the store balcony pantomiming along to the Belizean’s operatic and Caribbean ho ho hos and throwing candy to the children below, always so many children that the police have to close Sexta Avenida to traffic.—That recording is nearly forty years old! And do you know that little man who plays Santa is the very same man who has been doing it now for nearly forty years? (the stranger gapes in astonishment, he’d never realized) He must be able to act along to that recording in his sleep! Two hours of ho ho hos and Feliz Navidades and if you watch you’ll see that he never misses a single ho, he opens his mouth for every single ho! Which just proves that any job worth doing is worth doing well, my dear! (Later Moya confessed to me that while his inquiry about the train had been an effective conversation opener, he really had madly desired that train as a boy and had even fantasized about talking me into stealing it for him.)
“. . . Well, tall, dark, about six feet, I think,” said my mother, trying to describe the elegant young stranger.
“Oh good, tall, when I haven’t seen this guy in like twelve years probably. Brown eyes too I bet. Speaks good Spanish I bet. This is helpful, Mom.”
But she couldn’t remember his name because she’d assumed that if he’d gone to the Colegio Anne Hunt then she would at least know his mother, but of course she didn’t because Moya’s mother has never been anything, or rather anybody, more illustrious than Anne Hunt’s seamstress, and back then when we were in school his father was an officers’ mess waiter on a cargo ship owned by the Somoza family of Nicaragua.
“Well, he said he knew Flor de Mayo too,” said my mother. “Of course I didn’t tell him that you are working in a restaurant, my dear. I told him you are applying to graduate schools. Have you? Are you?”
“. . .”
Nervousness can bring out a breezy petulance in my mother’s voice, as well as suddenly make her native accent much stronger, and the more or less native attitudes she reverts to when she is feeling like that can seem malicious, though they really aren’t meant to be, though they can certainly be irritating. I mean, no, I hadn’t applied to anything, and was pretty much paralyzed by the whole idea, and she knew that.
But just mentioning Flor makes her nervous now, and so she can’t bring herself to very often, and I know that makes her feel as if she is somehow failing me, as if somehow I’ve needed nothing more than to pour my heart out to her about Flor and to hear all that she might have to say. When really she isn’t failing me at all, because I’ve tried not to mention Flor either, very often, not to my mother. (Though maybe Moya is right, and I do need to pour my heart out about Flor, to hear all that I might say.) But she thinks that I am only being vengeful and stubborn in some unnecessarily private way, and that I just won’t understand that Flor, her death and everything, truly shamed her, and stripped her of so many of her most necessary illusions. For she even thinks that Flor has made it impossible for her to go back to Guatemala again, partly because of the way the publicity surrounding the murder must have concentrated the sharpest scrutiny on my mother’s life among her relations and lifelong acquaintances and friends, who, of course, a few initial condolences aside, never mention Flor de Mayo to her in any of their correspondences.
Mirabel Arrau was sent to America by her mother—I know she imagines them thinking and gossiping all over the place—for reasons well known and embarrassing enough, and look, there she married a much older man, a Jew and not even one with money and after she left him for the first time and then went back to him because her little son contracted tuberculosis, her mother sent her a muchacha, a servant, a maid. And her husband put that maid in school and treated her like a daughter. And her son made her his sister and something more, yes, something more, don’t you think? Because when Mirabel’s son came down here, remember?—that same year that that muchacha came down and took over that orphanage, that son practically ignored his own family and spent all his time with that—they ran around like a pair of—and were seen several times drunk together, disoriented together—That girl who had been their maid and who was of course corrupt in who knows how many ways and then, por Dios, without honor or shame, her husband and son came down to take her body back and were shown treating our poor little news reporters so crudely, so offensively on television and with no respect for this country at all or for Mirabel’s good family name and then, but no, ay no, would you believe that they took her back and buried her in their own family plot! And now Mirabel has left her husband again! Living on her own, without help, a mature woman, living on her own like some poor little student in Boston! But I will say this we will all say this Gracias a Dios que bendiga that neither Mirabel’s father, Don Rogerio, nor her mother, la sant’sima Do’a Emilia, lived to witness any of this because ay no . . .
Guatemala, in so many ways the Kingdom of my mother’s Pride when I was growing up, her Empire of Beautiful Nostalgia, has become, she thinks, because of Flor and only because of Flor, a place where her name only provokes gossip and condemnation or searing pity and silence. She really believes that. And I have wanted to tell her that this can’t possibly be true, that she must be exaggerating, that her old-fashioned Guatemala, Abuelita’s socially rigid Guatemala, probably doesn’t even exist anymore, that even Uncle Jorge’s family has suffered their own little scandals and, look, aren’t they doing more or less fine? But I can’t. How am I supposed to bring it up if she admits nothing? says nothing? True, there were a few remarks to her from Uncle Jorge and Aunt Lisel complaining about my behavior and casual dress that one summer, and they at least pretended to be a bit offended that I had chosen to sleep on a couch in Flor’s apartment rather than in the guest room at their house (they should have known my mother would blow their comments all out of proportion, Aunt Lisel probably did know). But I’ve lived long enough now with my mother’s Pride and Nostalgia that it doesn’t take any special insight or powers of divination to know the rest.
Instead she has taken as her rhetorical escape the very sense of responsibility I have to admit I’d long urged on her. Because in Boston she often acts as if she has turned on Guatemala now because of the other things happening there, which I’d been telling her about for years, though I absolutely stopped mentioning it after Flor died. She is hardly a political person but I guess you don’t need to be, she can read the Boston Globe, has heard my father angrily recite what he has read there in recent years, both of us reciting what we’ve read there or elsewhere with, at times, the most unjust belligerence, as if partly blaming her. For so many years my mother considered it one of the great offenses of life in the United States that even the plumber might assume she was Puerto Rican or, even more grating to my mother, Cuban, and so think that he could treat her as a social equal or even inferior. But now she often acts as if she prefers even that to being identified as a Guatemalan by even the most perfunctory of newspaper readers, who usually associate her country’s name now only with such things as death squads, torture, disappearances, the most horrific and widespread massacres. And on days during the past year when the news from Guatemala has been especially shocking (the bayoneting of Indian babies and pregnant mothers by government soldiers) I’ve even heard her speak of renouncing her Guatemalan citizenship, which she has held on to all these years. My mother is not insincere, but I know that Flor came first, that the hurt Flor caused us has opened her mind, her emotions, to what has seemed like a fuller acknowledgment of these crimes.
So I didn’t doubt that she’d resolved not to mention Flor at all on the phone that day, but then had finally felt obligated to. I do think I understand her. And I also felt a need to protect myself from Flor. I let a silence run between us before I finally said:
“He said he knew Flor? From when she was at Wellesley or what?”
“I, I really don’t know, he didn’t say, he just said he’d known her and that, you know, of course . . .” She sighed, flustered. “He offered his condolences is all. Are you taking good care of yourself at least, Sweet Pea?”
“Uh-huh,” I said.
“I had dinner with your father a few days ago, by the way. He’s reading Don Quixote, and now is full of the idea that he should visit Spain this summer. Don Quixote, can you imagine? He never showed an interest in things like that all the years we were married, he never even learned Spanish . . .”
But then I was barely listening. She went on about things related to their separation, and then about how much harder it was to get to work on time now that she had to drive all the way from Boston to Shreve Hall, the girls’ boarding school in Dover where she teaches Spanish, she’d already been late for her first morning class three times after fifteen years of only having been late once . . . While I thought, Well, any one of them might have known Flor, even through the orphanage but more likely through the night life in La Zona Viva. I ran through that gargoyle gallery of all my old schoolmates again, and even considered Moya. He’d grown tall. He was dark. But Flor had never mentioned him to me, and I didn’t link him to any boyhood obsession with that train.
“But you know,” said my mother, when I’d pressed her again for a more distinguishing description, “his hair is starting to turn white. It looks fine on him but he is young for that, poor fellow.”
His hair was turning white. I dismissed the possibility of Moya. I didn’t know that, in fact, his hair was turning white. That day, over a year ago, outside La Verbena morgue, when Moya suddenly appeared, I hadn’t been interested in any detail so fine as the premature silvering of his hair, certainly under way by then. I did notice the size of his hands, one of his hands, the way his long, livid fingers lightly cradled a small reporter’s notebook and a tape recorder held together with tape; he’d walked towards me holding these objects a few inches in front of a bleached white shirt pocket loaded with pens. And then I’d noticed his expression, tremulously wide-eyed and miserable with what I took to be shame and a sensible fear of me. I’d thought, How dare he be here? and had only wanted to hate him . . .
Later Moya would tell me that in Cambridge he’d gone to see a doctor who told him that his “premature aging symptoms” (there were others less noticeable than his hair: inexplicable bouts of heavy fatigue, throbbing aches in the external parts of his ears) were a physiological reaction to constant anxiety and fear. He’d always understood this as the cause of an occasional tic in his right eye and the fragility of his stomach, but he’d never connected it to the other things. So he was relieved, even hopeful. Anxiety and fear might go away one day. And then maybe it will be like rain after a long drought? He’ll shave his head and watch it grow back black?
Moya met my mother in April, but I wouldn’t actually hear from him until May, and I wouldn’t go back to Guatemala until June.
Which is where I am now sitting, in fact, in Pastelería Hemmings, up on the mezzanine, at the very same table by the window where I was sitting five years ago when Moya spotted me on the day they reversed the direction of the one-way traffic, when he said, “Guatemala no existe . . .” and so on. Which I kind of came to think of as his refrain, recalling it just like that even years later in Brooklyn (months before that April afternoon when my mother phoned) on the winter day that I first saw the Guatemalan knish vendor’s truck parked right in front of my building on Eastern Parkway, a refurbished ice-cream truck with a man sitting inside and looking right at me with eyes that were two black, narrow stones of Indian seriousness and gravity set into a fat, round face; the truck’s panel decorated with the too familiar symbols of Guatemalan kitsch: cartoony quetzal birds in unfurled flight, a grape purple volcano, a Maya pyramid, and the painted letters “KNISHES CHAPÍN”—chapín being Central American slang for Guatemalan. A post-Maya chapín selling Jewish knosh food in Brooklyn. I tried to stay away from that truck as if it were a joke aimed just at me, would literally cross the street to avoid it whenever I ran into it around my neighborhood in the year plus after Flor’s death. “Guatemala doesn’t exist”—I couldn’t have wished more that it were true.
It’s raining outside, though not heavily. Half an hour ago it was torrential, a delicious reverberation that seemed to come from the earth instead of the sky, going right through me. I’m drinking coffee, smoking filterless Payasos (a white-faced clown with the smile of a lighthearted idiot waving from every poinsettia red, thirty-five-centavo square little pack); I have a copy of yesterday’s New York Times, purchased this morning for the equivalent of two bucks at Palacio de las Revistas, the Palace of Magazines, just down the block, and this notebook in which I am trying to commence this chronicling of the investigation into Flor’s life and death that Moya and I have agreed to collaborate on. Moya already refers to this place as my oficina, though I sit nearly as often in the Picadilly on La Sexta—Sixth Avenue—or at the table closest to the sidewalk in the Fo Lu Shu. Moya and I met here in the pastelería this morning. Just a touch patronizingly, he warned me about government informers, who are everywhere, including, of course, his own newspaper office, too many of them eager and ignorant enough to misunderstand any kind of conversation. Orejas, they’re called—ears. I’m supposed to act from now on as if even the old women sitting at the next table—one of them plaintively monologuing, “. .. he’s a good son, a good son, he adores his mother, la adora, he puts his mother above everything”—might be orejas too. I’m to be a tumba: our secrets sealed inside me as if inside a tomb.
I yawn like crazy. This constant fact of paranoia, no matter how abstractly abided, tires me, I think. Every afternoon I feel just sapped. But it must be the altitude too and all the unfiltered motor fumes in the air and probably gastrointestinal germs working as silently inside me as this blend of excitement and fear and other more familiar emotions, which I try not to let my expression betray, (yawn, drink coffee, smoke, read newspaper, scribble in notebook, keep a quietly watchful eye, a tuned-in ear . . .) And the rain, and the afternoon light that looks washed through ashes. Guatemala City is a mountain city, and during the rainy season especially the sky couldn’t feel closer or heavier.
Across the street the dim blue neon is on in the window of a shoe store, spelling out LE PETIT CHALET. And just the dimmest hue of blue neon suffuses the soft rain and the drifting mists in front of the big, wet, black granite blocks of another building, and suffuses as well the drenched blue shirts of a trio of policemen walking by, their high black boots and sharp-featured Indian faces shiny from the rain. Bumper-to-bumper traffic, cars, Jeeps, vans, many with windows polarized black so you can’t see in and probably bullet-proofed too; schoolgirls in drably colored uniforms hurrying down the flooded sidewalk, books clutched to their chests or held over their hair, on their way to the avenues where the buses run; a peasant woman from the altiplano, the highlands, the woven colors and patterns of her traditional Indian traje darkened by rain, grime, and wear, her traje-wrapped torso immobile but her bare feet lightly trotting along under the ragged, soaked hem, an eye like a frightened bird’s peering out from under the lumpy cloth bundle she carries on her head. All of this, and something else absorbed like a mood along with just what you see—La Merced Cathedral’s dome and cross against the fuming sky and a shabby high rise of rust-streaked concrete; and even the tattered art deco furnishings of Pastelería Hemmings’s mezzanine here inside, the weak light from the electric candelabras set into the dull crimson walls and the dusty plastic plants in urns, the odors of cheap, rain-soaked fabrics, the elephant-footed old women sitting four to a table and the middle-aged clerk expressionlessly reading a newspaper while he waits for his plump and adulterous lover, the five-year-old girl in her yellow street urchin’s dress who has snuck up the stairs to beg from table to table with the melancholy, spurned self-possession of a veteran gypsy—all of this makes me think that Guatemala City, especially downtown in Zona 1, really must be something like Prague, the way you might imagine Prague if you’ve never been there, just what you might know and feel about Prague watching any random downtown street corner from a cake shop like this one on a rainy afternoon, people going about their subterranean business in the urban capital of a well-entrenched police state.
Now a short, portly man, his black hair gleaming with brilliantine and rain, is walking hurriedly down the sidewalk holding a flimsy umbrella, and under one arm he carries a long, rectangular photograph, wrapped in transparent cellophane, of a sweetly smiling young girl, dressed and crowned in immaculate white, kneeling to receive her First Communion.
That day five years ago, when the government changed the direction of the one-way traffic on the city’s major avenues, Moya was right here in Pastelería Hemmings, sitting at a table with three other student types, two guys and a girl, and they were huddled over a copy of the afternoon daily (the very same afternoon paper, El Minuto, that in less than two years Moya would find himself working for) that had just hit the streets, its headline announcing that so far that day ten people had died, either in traffic accidents or from getting run over. I hadn’t realized he was Moya yet—he would recognize me first—but I could hear them talking about it as I stared out the window, heard a bitterly deadpan voice (his) from their table saying in Spanish, Permit me to say that as a way of relieving traffic congestion I find this not bad. Eliminate the drivers, eliminate the pedestrians. And then the girl’s voice petulantly saying, Permíteme decir que no es cosa para chistes, vos, it isn’t anything to joke about . . .
About a week later my favorite cousin, Catalina, Catty to all of us, then a senior at the Colegio Anne Hunt, would tell how a teacher who had been particularly affected by the chaos of the traffic change that day, one of the perpetually young Señorita Something teachers, said, “This proves the government doesn’t care about the people.” Anne Hunt might have fired her for getting political in class that way, if it had gotten back to her. But what made Catty’s story funny was that this teacher was practically obsessed with her car, a brand-new red Toyota she’d won in a raffle only months before. Catty said this teacher couldn’t have been more exagerada in her pride over this car if she’d tried, always telling her class things like “Imagine how it improves the psychology to drive a car with all the windows down in the morning instead of riding the bus, to breathe fresh morning air instead of bus exhaust and the smells of all the people pressed against you, so many of them, let’s face it, very poor and unhygienic people.” Or she’d leave books and papers behind in the car just so she could make a show of saying, “Will someone volunteer to go out to my car and get them? It’s a red Toyota, and today it is parked just down the block, on the left side, right under that jasmine tree. If it rains today my car will be covered with jasmine blossoms, and if I drive home with the windows down, I’ll smell jasmine all the way!”
But this teacher had been so traumatized by the chaotic traffic that day that she’d started leaving her car at home and riding the bus, and in the days since had turned into a real melancólica in class, listless and distracted and constantly sipping hot lettuce tea from a thermos for her nerves. All of which culminated in the scene out in front of the school just after the siesta break one afternoon when a young lower-class man accosted this teacher as she came walking down the sidewalk from the bus stop. Through eavesdropped snatches of his tormented shouting and the teacher’s pleading whispers, Catty and her friends were able to piece together a puzzle revealing that for months her teacher and this man had been meeting in her parked Toyota during the siesta, but only when it rained and rained hard, which at the height of the rainy season was just about every afternoon, to kiss and maybe even make love with the rain protecting them from the danger of curious passersby, a curtain of rain closing them off from all the world in their cozy, black vinyl, made-in-Japan love nest. But this love affair was over now that the señorita felt too afraid to drive her car anymore. And how could it ever be resumed now that her lover’s outraged and indiscreet tantrum had let the students in on their secret? “Pobrecita,” poor thing, lamented my cousin Catty, while she sat facing me on the piano stool in Uncle Jorge’s study, where she was waiting with placid impatience for her boyfriend’s daily evening visit and telling me this story. “Why couldn’t he have waited? calmed her? helped her to feel confident about taking her carrito out in traffic again? But that’s how men are, verdad? They take everything personally! Pues sí.”
And later that same evening of the day they changed the direction of the traffic, when I went back to the furnished apartment in Zona 10 that Flor was already renting, carrying my own copy of El Minuto and its TEN DEAD headline, Flor had just washed her hair, had it turbaned in a towel, and was sitting on the couch, doing absolutely nothing apparently, which was not characteristic. (“You won’t believe who I ran into in Pastelería Hemmings. Moya! Remember Moya?”—it didn’t mean much to her, no reason that it should have then.) But it’s amazing how easy it is just to sit around doing nothing in Guatemala, or anywhere in the tropics perhaps—it isn’t the heat, because Guatemala City isn’t especially hot and in November, December it even gets cold. But day after day you can just sit around doing nothing and it doesn’t feel particularly wrong or even tedious. Back then I thought several times that maybe this was the reason Flor had returned here and seemed interested in staying awhile: that after so many years of balancing heroic overachieving with the more banal but just as constant demands of housework and, more recently, earning a living, not to mention what seemed to me years of unbroken and rather obsessive socializing, that Flor was finding it pleasurable to sit around being lazy and anonymous; that she even felt a perverse and paradoxically self-negating attraction to a place—her native country!—where everywhere you looked hard work seemed only one more aspect of a general futility it was easiest to escape by just not doing anything, but only if you could afford to, and she could. (But then, within two months, she would throw herself into her new job running Los Quetzalitos, and for the next three years plus work harder than she ever had before.) Anyway, I handed Flor the newspaper and she snapped it open like it was just what she’d been waiting for all day. And then seconds later tossed it aside on the couch and said sleepily and in her eternally childlike voice, “Oh well. Let them eat cake.”
Because what were ten more dead people that summer?
It was the General Lucas Garcia regime, recently embarked on its own three-year reign of unprecedented bloodiness. And it was just beginning to dawn on people that they were really into something now, that this was going to be quite a bit stranger and so much more horrific than even the previous twenty-five years of bloody enough military rule had been. But the guerrillas were strong then too, in the Indian highlands, the jungles of the Petán, and even in the cities, where businessmen were often targeted for kidnappings. Uncle Jorge would phone home just before leaving his office to alert the maids, and when he turned into the top of the street he’d honk three times and the maids would swing the steel-fortified double doors open so that he could glide the car in without having to stop, and then they’d pull the doors shut behind him. One of Catty’s Colegio Anne Hunt schoolmates was ambushed coming out of a party: he’d just gotten into his car and then he refused to come out and be kidnapped. He threw it into forward and slammed into his assailants just as they’d begun to unload their machine guns into his windshield. He ran right over them, killing two guerrillas, but he died too. Which was stupid, I think. He could have had a chance to live. His family could have paid the ransom. Instead he became a Colegio Anne Hunt martyr and a year later Anne Hunt’s husband, Scobie, became another. Everyone with money wanted to get their kids out of the country, and even my aunt and uncle sent Catty away to college in Montreal, Canada, that following winter, where, despite her little college being all women and Catholic, she ended up marrying the very first guy who set eyes on her. Literally, pretty much the very first one. He worked as a skycap at Dorval Airport, a half French-Canadian, half-Italian guy named Ronnie. It was love at first sight, for him anyway. He loaded Catty and Aunt Lisel’s luggage onto his cart and flirted Catty up all the way out to her taxi and learned where they were going from the driver, and then he really chased her. He was more than just a skycap, of course, I mean he had other ambitions. And Catty loved him. But it ended very badly, and now Catty is living in Guatemala again, in her parents’ house, with her two-year-old twin daughters, Rosie and Paloma.
Of course the people who the army and the police took or killed were rarely given the option of paying ransoms. And they took or killed thousands upon thousands.
The head of the National Police was named Chupina. One joke going around was, Did you hear Chupina had a twin brother in the womb?—Yes, stillborn, showing signs of torture and a tiro de gracia, a coup de gráce, in the head.
And in another Chupina and General Lucas are fishing, and Lucas catches a tiny fish and he’s about to toss it back but Chupina says, Wait, give it to me, and he takes the fish in one hand and starts pummeling its head with the other, saying, OK, talk, where are the big ones?
(In New York I worked as a bartender, a temperamentally good-natured if not particularly joky one. For years, whenever customers told jokes at the bar and etiquette seemed to require that I tell one too, these were the only ones that came to me.)
That was the summer that the Sandinista revolutionaries took Managua. Or, according to Uncle Jorge and many who agree with him, the summer that U.S. President “Jimmy Castro” let the Sandinistas have it. But in Guatemala, world-wandering international hippies were still filling all the two-dollar-a-night hotel rooms in Panajachel, the tourist town up on the volcano-ringed lake, and ordering the legendary or maybe apocryphal psilocybin mushroom omelets in the Café Psicodílico; you could always tell the Germans because they were the ones who most liked to show their esteem and solidarity with the culture by going around dressed up in Indian traje, much of it too small for them, chubby blond calves protruding like slabs of hairy suet from beneath striped Indian britches. Young summer travelers still crowded into Livingston’s reggae bars on the Caribbean coast and danced the night away under the bent palms on the pig-shit- and fish-stinking, dark dirt beach, while the black Carib kids living in the shrimpers’ huts grouped around, jumping up and down and chanting “Sandinista!” to win the pretty European girls’ attention.