by Gaither Stewart
Since the English-language newspaper of San Miguel printed two of his articles, Jerry had taken to telling people in town that he was a writer. That answer gave him great satisfaction because there was nothing Jerry wanted more than to be known as a writer. Nonetheless he was self-conscious and ill at ease when he entered the sports bar in the backroom of the Tex-Mex Restaurant where as each Saturday afternoon the literati were gathered to watch American football; he was aware that he didn’t qualify as a writer in their eyes.
Lanky, with a gaunt face, Jerry cultivated the look of a man who after much suffering, world travels and inspired meditation has become wise and has chosen the only logical path – literature. After his early retirement from his teaching position at an exclusive Atlanta prep school the first thing he’d done was to stop shaving and let his hair grow, finally settling on a thin mustache and chin beard. However since the hair on top of his head had by then all but vanished, he’d opted for a small pigtail - his “chignon.”
As his first year in Mexico passed and the paper printed his review of a book on changes in American English usage and two months later a report on an organized excursion to Lake Patzcuaro, he’d begun to think that he was at least on the road to becoming a writer. His name was in print. Now, in order to make the big step, he felt he had to be accepted by the clan of writers in the famous resort town.
“So that’s all you guys got to do,” he shouted from the end of the bar in his flat accent. His “guys” rang like his drawn out “I” or “high” as pronounced by rock singers. Even though his entrance was noisy and fraternal, he doubted that it was proper for serious writers to be sitting here on the high stools yelling their heads off while the giants of Notre Dame and UCLA struggled on the gridiron and the cheerleaders showed their cute little asses. Still, if he was a writer he had to be one of them.
“You oughta be home reading the Bible or Shakespeare or something,” he quipped, clapping Jim Riley on the shoulder. He knew the children’s book author best. He’d been to dinner at his house and felt comfortable with him. He counted on him to back his membership in the elite group.
“Well, here’s our pigtailed journalist from Georgia.” Riley tore his eyes from the screen and glanced up at Jerry, a glassy, vacant look in his eyes. “Covered any juicy sex stories lately?” he asked, turning back to the screen.
“Oh, I’m working on a big assignment ... top secret!” Jerry squeezed under his arm the thick folder of brochures, news clippings and notes that he’d begun carrying with him in his meandering around town - from the post office to his cafe on the Zocalo, from the newspaper office to the library, and to the shaded benches on the Jardin.
Was there not malice in Jim’s look? Jerry wondered, miffed at the lack of warmth in his greeting. Moving down the bar he greeted by name Charles O’Grady and Billy Jones and nodded to others he didn’t know. The absorbed literary men responded in distracted grunts. It was embarrassing. He stashed his papers under a stool and climbed onto the perch next to Robert Druard, ordered a cold Corona, and in imitation of the others glued unseeing eyes on the big screen.
He’d never really appreciated football anyway. He hardly understood it. He squirmed uncomfortably, nearly rubbing shoulders with Druard, who nodded to him and said, “how yah doin?” Everyone said Robert Druard was a short story writer of some repute. O’Grady and Jones kept leaning over the bar and shouting comments and reactions toward Druard and the telecasters shouted about the Tigers and the Wolves and rushing records and defensive strategies. And Jerry hadn’t the vaguest idea what they were talking about. He wanted to nudge Druard and make some comment but nothing pertinent to the game occurred to him.
Jerry had always been known for his wisecracks. By nature garrulous and intrusive he ordinarily never stopped talking - especially in the first person. If in the divorce suit his wife had charged incompatibility of character, she told him that the chief reason she wanted the divorce was that she simply couldn’t listen to him anymore. His two children agreed. After the divorce they never came around. When he began to understand that he was a victim of his own personality – of his whimsical loquacity, he said - he decided Atlanta was too small for him and came to Mexico.
Yet, he wondered, can a man change his character? That’s just the way I am, he excused himself. Therefore he felt foolish now. Like a pointer that could never point. Just sitting there on the stool next to the short story writer and saying nothing. He was wrong to come.
“Riley, you just ain’t got no football sense. He don’t have the passer’s vision of the field,” Druard shouted down the bar and pounded his glass on the oak surface. “Hey, José, gimme another tequila too and fill’em up all around. This one’s on me, guys.”
Why hadn’t he done that? Jerry thought. That would’ve broken the ice. It reminded him of the old arguments with his wife - he quipped and wisecracked but always thought of the telling things he should have said the next day. He was rich in puns but poor in battle mettle.
“Thanks, Bob,” he said louder than necessary when José served him another beer. “I’ll get the next round.”
“OK!” said Druard, glancing at him as if wondering who he was.
Saturday after Saturday they could go on in that incomprehensible football lingo. He knew it was mostly nonsense, only the excuse for a special kind of camaraderie, but he had trouble entering into the spirit of it. What he wanted was to sit in a booth with Druard and Riley and discuss new literature and inspiration and creativity. But here conversation never deviated from first downs and completed passes.
An English teacher most of his career, Jerry had opted for early retirement at age 52 in order to escape from his one-way life in Atlanta. He wanted to try his hand at writing and to fulfill an old dream and live abroad. Yet sometimes he regretted his hasty move. Above all he regretted that he hadn’t started his writing career much earlier. Like Druard, who, Riley had told him, had published his first story at 19 in a major New York magazine.
Since Jerry came to Mexico the year before, permanently he told everyone, his regrets seemed to multiply. What could he do? Was it too late to change his life? After all he wasn’t that old. Yet he often felt he couldn’t rectify past mistakes - his divorce, his estrangement from his children, his economic crisis, his lack of direction made up his miserable unchangeable reality. He’d been following along some vague path that led him willy-nilly through life, sometimes in the right direction, at other times completely erroneous, like a fickle girl forgets overnight her lover of yesterday and holds the one of today. It was all done. He felt a new humility - for the first time he learned the meaning of regret. He now regretted his previous lack of regret.
Time-out on the screen for a beer commercial and he’d barely raised his hand to order a round when Riley stood up and yelled for José to “fill’em up.” Jerry lowered his hand and looked around the semi-darkened bar. A half dozen Mexican tourists drinking in a corner booth were talking loud and laughing and paying no attention to the TV screen. Two elderly couples of Gringos were eating hamburgers and glancing uneasily at the noisy sports enthusiasts. The telecaster came back on to discuss the Tigers’ passing records while the teams spread out for another kick-off.
He took a sip of beer. He slammed down his glass harder than usual and leaned forward as if to shout something at Riley - but the children’s book writer was speaking to O’Grady. Jerry twisted on the stool. He leaned down and adjusted his papers and searched in the recesses of his memory for some football knowledge to comment on.
He just didn’t measure up to expectations! What did people expect of him anyway? He looked at the others in the mirror behind the bar and admitted that his social relationships had always been superficial. He sighed. Loneliness was his eternal lot. He couldn’t live at home. San Miguel remained foreign to him. He was excluded from the writers’ circle because he didn’t understand football. His was the loneliness of the creator - misunderstood, a pariah, a hermit in the world of ideas.
Staring at the screen he saw and didn’t see a receiver spear a pass one-handed for another touchdown. Wolves’ fans were tearing their hair. “The Tigers roll on,” screamed the hysteric sportscaster. Records were falling. Sports history was being rewritten. The writers were shouting up and down the bar. Druard was balanced on the rungs of his stool, tipped forward over the bar.
Jerry swished the beer around in his glass. He was tongue-tied. How could he leave gracefully without being noticed? He stirred around, looking up and down the bar. A crowd had gathered at his back. The Gringos in the booth were paying. New arrivals were waiting. He slid off the stool and went to the toilet.
When he returned a Tiger player was racing from one side of the field to the other and Druard was screaming, “there he is, you idiot, he’s all alone, throw the fuckin’ ball.” Jerry stooped and gathered his papers just under the heavy Druard, who again on his feet, was shouting toward the giant screen, “there he is, throw it man, throw the ball you son of a bitch.”
Outside Jerry breathed a sigh of relief. He was mortified. To sit there and not talk was humiliating. Why couldn’t he’ve at least bought a round? He walked up Canal, a pensive look on his thin face. He peered up at the sky. The winter days this year were really fine. The high spotless sky cast bluish shadows across the trees of the Jardin and created myriads of brightness in the gardens. In contrast to the Tex-Mex bar an odd silence had crept over San Miguel.
Saturday afternoon! He couldn’t face his empty apartment. He could go by Miranda’s, even though their relation had cooled off since their visit to her family in Mexico City. But yes, he had to do something! He retraced his steps down Canal, walked downhill along Zacateros, turned into Pila Seca, went past the cheap hotel where he’d once lived, past the offices of the doctor who treated his frequent stomach ailments - he often ate at street kitchens where the Mexicans ate, convinced that he would gradually develop an immunity to local bacteria that seemed to plague only foreigners - and continued on to the new residential area where Miranda rented a small house. With his finger on the doorbell he thought again that he shouldn’t come here. He rang.
Standing in the doorway flanked by her big bulldog, she was intimidating. In high heels and with her blond hair piled on top of her head, she towered over his six feet. He liked that sensation of physical inferiority to her. Miranda Ortega, the daughter of a Mexican General, apparently had more of her father’s qualities than her many siblings - decisive and authoritative, she was used to commanding. Though there was no solid basis for their relationship, also her haughty treatment of him inexplicably attracted him.
“Well, we have not seen you in some time,” she said in her proper English. “Since we returned from Mexico City!” She meant herself, Luisa her 12-year old daughter of a previous marriage, the dog Antonio, and Jerry. She eyed him coolly as if measuring him while restraining the dog who loved Jerry and wanted to leap on him as usual.
“Uh, yes,” Jerry began. He’d always wanted to speak Spanish with her but since her English was so superior to his Spanish they had settled on English. “I’ve been pretty busy at the newspaper and writing and, uh ... you know Miranda, I don’t think your family liked me.” He blurted out the unspoken admission he’d been itching to bring into the open - their visit at her family home in the capital’s swank San Angel quarter had been a disaster.
They’d been sleeping together for several months when Miranda asked him to go along with her and Luisa for the birthday party of one of her sisters. The much-awaited 36-hour visit in General Ortega’s villa was for Jerry hours of tension and embarrassment. In the subsequent days and weeks he understood that he’d erred in everything - his photographing of the family at every moment, his frequent requests for someone to pose, his stubborn insistence on speaking his horribly accented beginner’s Spanish at the table to a family all of whom spoke English well.
General Ortega, a tough man in the military world, doted on his blond daughter. He made no secret that he regarded her relationship with this Gringo a misalliance. Her brother Alvaro, an established writer, had sat most of the day alone in a corner, only grunting when Jerry tried to speak with him; he was the chief reason Jerry had wanted to go to Mexico City in the first place - to talk with this brilliant Mexican man of letters. Miranda told him that Alvaro was meditating; he could work an entire day on one paragraph. Jerry still blushed when he recalled his thoughtless response: “Maybe he doesn’t know the meaning of inspiration.”
“That is your imagination,” she now said in the doorway. “But you know how Mexican families are.” He waited but she left her thought unfinished. “Do you want to enter?”
“Just for a few minutes.” Jerry tossed his things on a chair and flopped down in the middle of the couch, his legs spread, purposely in a familiar fashion. Antonio immediately leapt up between his legs and licked his hands and slobbered on his pants. His head inclined backwards, his eyes half-closed, his hands attempting to brake the dog’s enthusiasm, Jerry caught the flash of irritation on Miranda’s face and understood why: she was thinking that he didn’t belong here.
“Well at least Antonio loves my presence. I think he needs a man around.” As the words came out of his mouth he knew they too were wrong. Still humiliated by his cowardly behavior at the writers’ bar, Jerry needed reassurance. Strange how cool she’d become. As if they’d never shared that back bedroom. What a demeaning day! First the writers and now her!
Jerry had been in the Latin world too short a time to realize that any hint of machismo to an emancipated Mexican woman was a declaration of war. Moreover he hadn’t grasped Miranda’s mettle. She was a piece of steel, irresistible, perhaps greedy, but strong and determined. She seemed to have found immense strength in past moments of stress and crisis that he would never comprehend. More than once she had tried to explain that his machismo was the reason she had divorced her husband and moved to the provinces. She rejected any form of male dependency - with the exception of her relationship with her father whom she adored and from whom she accepted financial aid.
“So how is your writing going?” Sitting opposite him on a straight chair, her thin lips pursed, her chin high, she didn’t look as if she really cared.
“Oh, I put something on paper every day.” He pushed Antonio’s mouth away from his, worried that the dog’s saliva caused hepatitis. “But it’s hard. I thought I had so much to say. Yet, in the morning those thoughts seem to vanish. Inspiration comes so hard.”
How many days he sat in his apartment waiting for inspiration. Or he wrote two or three lines and immediately tore up the paper, thinking that if it came that hard it must be crap. He started to say that he’d joined the writers’ circle and was finding inspiration in the mutual exchange of ideas with other men of letters - but he remembered that she knew a couple of them, who might tell her a different story.
“Yet it’s what I’m here for. In San Miguel, I mean. I mean, I need inspiration to be able to express my subconscious.” He sighed and assumed a tragic air. That sounded so banal in words but he yearned to tell her, to tell someone, how it really was for him. He too had come to San Miguel in search of independence and of the freedom of thought that he’d never possessed – back there. That was important. Every day he told himself that he had to rid himself of conscience of which he believed he had too much. Some days he would lie in bed until 10 a.m. and tell himself it didn’t matter. For who is there to check on me? Yet that was even more frightening. It intensified his loneliness - no one checked on him. No one needed him because no one knew what he was capable of.
“You are so quiet today, Jerry. You seem lonely. Maybe you are not busy enough!”
It was true. His loneliness had intensified since he stopped spending his nights here. It accentuated his isolation and deepened the vacuum in his brain. Then when mornings no words he considered worthy of being put to paper came to him and he felt his loneliness choking him, he interrogated himself: Where was he to go? What could he return to? Only a lonely person can appreciate the home, the spot on earth that is his. But he, what could he do in his former home? He’d failed in everything there. No one there needed him. Who needed his heart? he thought in especially bitter moments. He had nothing to take back with him, to show, and say, “this is what I have done, this is who I am.” No, he had no such chance. What if he were to simply vanish and leave nothing? What would it mean? It would mean nothing. Without some extraordinary accomplishment there was no return.
That was the thing about writers. They leave something behind. Only writing seemed to hold that promise for him. It would be the crowning accomplishment of his life. For that he needed an important piece of writing to launch him. He needed a scoop! The scoop of a lifetime!
“I’m alone but I need to belong,” he said, immediately sorry he’d made that admission even to himself. The words were bold but humiliating. Yet he recognized the embryo of truth before him. “I just don’t seem to have the courage to exist as a loner out there in the world where no individual person ever counts. There must be some solidarity in life.”
Miranda looked at him and didn’t answer.
These are bitter days, he reflected. Decisive days. Jerry knew he lacked the imagination to stray dangerously far alone. And he consoled himself with a recurring thought - he would hang on here as long as possible and if nothing notable happened, then someday he would sneak back into Atlanta and pick up any stray pieces he could find.
The scoop meanwhile tormented him. The scoop could redeem him. But what scoop, when he had nothing to say and hardly knew the place he was inhabiting? He hardly understood the woman sitting in front of him.
“Inspiration!” He heard the scorn in her voice. “Are you a poet? Poets need inspiration. Are you not a journalist?”
“I’m a writer not a journalist. It’s not the same.”
“The newspaper published two of your articles. So it seems you are a journalist, Jerry. At least until you write something else. Mexico is a big big country, Jerry. Write something else for that little newspaper.”
Oh! she knew how to turn the screw. The she-devil! The little paper! And the way she pronounced Jerry, so gutturally. That was another reason he had come to hate his name - her pronunciation of it, almost mocking. As if he were a comedian. In truth his name was so common. Grotesque for a writer to be named ‘Jerry.’ He wished he had an exotic name, a double name or something with a Latin flavor, like Roman or Rafael. But Jerry? Preposterous.
Antonio had dozed off with his head on Jerry’s lap. While he slowly scratched behind the dog’s ear, the idea of the guerrilla war he’d read about this morning in the cafe suddenly occurred to him. Now there was a real story. Its clandestine nature! The violence. The atrocities. An incipient revolution. Right there under everyone’s eyes and no one knew much about it. A story that he could do first. He would be a new Jack Reed. Reports from Chiapas in the south and from the state of Guerrero not far from Acapulco. He could combine the two, a visit to the guerrillas and a short vacation on the coast where he could write his first story, holed up in some romantic hotel room. A mysterious place on a back street. His lamp would burn late into the night. A cheap dark room, with an overhead fan, flimsy dirty curtains dancing in the breeze and a leaky faucet in the washbasin. He would order black coffee and bottles of mineral water. The early morning would find him disheveled, the room a wreck, his scoop safe and secure inside his laptop on the bare table behind the now still curtains.
“If I’m ever going to break through I have to do something sensational. You know, Miranda, something no one else gets. I mean a scoop.”
“If you’re not a journalist, why do you need this scoop?”
“Like I said, to break through. To make a name. I need notoriety.” He didn’t add that the scoop would also open the door into the magic circle of the writers’ club. His journalism was meaningless. Any grandmother could have done those stories. They didn’t give him the necessary glitter.
“Maybe a visit to the rebel armies in the mountains.”
“Well, many foreign journalists write about the Zapatista Revolutionary Army but most ignore the Underground Revolutionary Movement in Guerrero. And that area is under General Ortega’s command,” she said, referring as she often did to her father by his title. “Everybody in the villages knows them but you cannot get to them without military permission. He could arrange it.”
“But he doesn’t like me!”
“No importa. He will do it if I ask him.”
It was curious. He knew nothing about Mexican politics. He’d never been interested. He didn’t read the Mexican press. Before today he’d only read here and there about the quiet war with rebel groups in the hinterland. The American press wrote only about Zapatistas, corrupt politicians, the drug traffic and the mysterious deaths of nosy Mexican journalists - and the desaparecidos. The military was accused of atrocities against one and all.
And how could he talk to the rebels anyway, even if he did get to them? His Spanish was terrible. If Miranda had only spoken Spanish to him as he’d wanted! Moreover this operation wouldn’t be cheap. What a shame, what a waste, to then give free a scoop like this to a little English language sheet. Yet this was his big chance. The scoop! He needed something entirely new, a place entirely new where he could start his life again. A jumping off point. A launching pad. He needed the scoop to survive.
Yet going to the hinterland of Guerrero under the protection of a lawless ruthless military was like he imagined astronomers feel traveling to some distant planet that existed only in their theory. He broke his head over problematics. What was he doing anyway? What could come of it? And would the notoriety after all make him a writer?
“But I don’t have journalist credentials from the Foreign Ministry. Who would protect me?”
“You will not need any credentials if my father arranges it. The army knows the rebels and the rebels know the military people. General Ortega can arrange the meeting.”
It was too easy. Jerry had spent his life as a schoolteacher. He’d always been the obedient American. He hooked up his seat belt to drive around the corner for a loaf of bread, he stood in line at bus stops, he stayed seated until the plane came to a complete stop, he believed in the Constitution. And if today he still knew next to nothing about Mexico, he was not completely naive. He, who had the faith of the good American in order and justice, began to think about strange concepts: fate and destiny as determinant in the life of a man. In Mexico he’d sometimes wondered if there was not truth in fate too. In Mexico, perhaps more than in justice. Where would that fate carry him? To die in some remote place, unknown and unrecognized? The possibility of a new life in his loneliness - and now in this growing sense of Mexican lawlessness - seemed for a moment like illusion. Melancholy illusion. Something remote and unobtainable.
From his roof terrace the view of the enflamed orbit plummeting toward the horizon of the Sierra underlined his sensation of abandonment. It’s time, he thought, to seriously examine myself - for I AM ALONE. If people believed that he in his life had to do chiefly with himself, the truth was he’d never really seen himself. Yet he feared it was tardy to begin looking inwardly - which, he knew, would be the first step toward creativity. But was it worth it? He’d had enough illusory satisfactions and then the inevitable deceptions. Where was he now to turn?
Therefore - and contradictorily - he’d put his hopes for a new life in an acquired notoriety. For in truth he was no one here. Certainly he was no hero. But he could try. No? To others at home in Atlanta hadn’t he always seemed fearless? Coming to Mexico was the proof. Going bravely into the jungles to meet the rebels would establish his image forever. Fearless! he was. Rushing to the left and the right, apparently finding time for everything. He conjured up the image of himself after this act of bravery. He’s hunched over his old computer in the agency composing stories for the press. He’s writing in depth about the problems of modern Mexico. He’s directing letters to literary agents and publishers. And, in the afternoon, there he is, conversing with his informants in hushed tones in discreet cafes and packed bars.
Nonetheless, the fear was there, rising from his bowels. He held on to the parapet as if for life - he was the solitary man tottering on the edge, forced by the conjuncture of unforeseen and unpredictable circumstances to confront his fate. Was his life now, at his stage of life, winding down to an astonishing act of destiny? To a finale in the western ranges of the Sierra Madre?
As he stared westwards into the light of the vanishing sun, fearfully, he was intermittently driven by the blind alley of his dream of fame. That dream dimmed the little skepticism he possessed. “If it’s true that skepticism is an arm,” he admitted, “then I’m defenseless.” At the same time, a new factor emerged. He became aware that deep in his nature had been concealed a spirit of vengeance - vengeance now crying for satisfaction. Vengeance for his own past that he’d never controlled. Vengeance for that system of order and justice that had surrounded him so that he’d never controlled his own being. Staring over the ledge into the deep rays of the sinking sun, it seemed that a chain of failures, bad luck and a pitiless destiny had infected his life. He wanted to risk.
Mankind was divided among the just, the good, the right and the successful, on one side and, on the other, the hangers-on and the losers who stumbled through life, hoping for a break from the great god Chance. He’d always believed he belonged to the former. Today he had his doubts. For the first time he saw the shadow, the blurry outline, the merest hint of himself as the fool – and simultaneously, only faintly, as a man of destiny. A contradictory duality. Where could his crooked path lead?
The next morning Miranda came to his apartment. She had spoken with General Ortega. Everything was arranged. Jerry only had to join him in his headquarters in the capital of the state of Guerrero. Chilpancingo was a cool town at 1000 meters altitude between Mexico City and Acapulco 130 kilometers to the south, which he could easily reach by bus in one day. He could find a nice hotel for the first night; General Ortega would take care of him later.
“Perfect!” The bright morning sun of the highlands filled him with optimism. If the rebels were there in the surrounding hills, it couldn’t be terribly difficult to meet with them. General Ortega very probably maintained a constant liaison with the rebel leadership.
“I will leave tomorrow,” he barked. “You can tell General Ortega that I will report to him day after tomorrow morning.”
”The die is cast,” he repeated to himself as he made his way around town. Following the road of justice or the fickle god Fate, Jerry was not sure which, all was decided.
In a whisper he spoke to the chief editor of the local weekly newspaper about a scoop he would soon be submitting but that it would have to remain a secret until he had the story safely in his hands. He telephoned Riley that he was on to something exciting - he would brief him in detail after his return in a week or so.
That evening he packed a suitcase with an extra khaki shirt and pants, heavy shoes, a change of underwear and a red bandanna that he folded with special fondness. For the hills and jungle he included a mosquito net and anti-insect repellents, disinfectants for the water, and anti-histamines for his allergies. For Acapulco, he took shorts, swimsuit and assorted beach apparel. In a smaller bag he packed his two cameras and several rolls of color and black and white film, a tape recorder with extra cassettes, radio, binoculars, regional maps that he would study on the bus, notepads and writing materials. He would carry his laptop in its case hanging from his shoulder.
The next morning, dressed in khaki and wearing a new Panama hat, his computer swinging from his shoulder, Jerry boarded the early bus for Mexico City. Today he could laugh at the curious Mexican habit of drawing all the window curtains on first-class buses. Despite the darkness he felt carefree. He didn’t even consider the possibility of turning back. Events were no longer under his control.
“Documento!” The Press Officer, a small mustachioed man, received him in a spacious room adjacent to the Reception in the Government Building in Chilpancingo. He held out his hand impatiently and seemed to measure Jerry with a certain amusement in his eyes before scanning a long list of names. “Ah, si, esta su nombre - Scott, Gerald. Verdad! Periodista?” he said with a grin.
“Escritor!” Jerry answered.
“Por supuesto! Oh, I see that you have a special itinerary. Perdone Ud.”
“Cuando puedo …” Jerry began. Then, in English: “When can I see General Ortega?”
“Tomorrow at noon. After the other journalists have left for the tour of our beautiful state. You will see the General then. Alone of course.”
That evening, comfortably installed in the colonial hotel looking onto the Palacio de Gobierno and a gigantic bronze sculpture entitled “El Hombre Hacia el Futuro,” Man Toward the Future, Jerry telephoned Miranda in San Miguel Allende that he’d had a safe trip and thanked her for arranging the meeting with General Ortega.
“From my windows in the Hotel Central,” he said in a thin unnatural voice, “I can see the mountains. Everything is in the best of order. I will report to General Ortega tomorrow at noon.”
The next morning at breakfast he was strangely absent. As if he were not he at all. Or, as if he were on a tourist excursion, waiting for a connection to a final destination. He’d awakened early. His mood was almost frivolous. But remote. He was conscious that he perceived no tension. Nor any fear whatsoever. He hardly thought of where he was. His reason for being here seemed to escape him. Almost as an afterthought he strolled down the busy avenue past the Zocalo to the Estrella de Oro bus station. As if it hardly concerned him personally he noted the departures for Acapulco, surprised that express buses left every hour. He went to the public toilet. He bought a newspaper. At an outdoor café next to the terminal he ordered a coffee and brandy – the guerrilla army and the mountains and General Ortega were far from his mind. Those things hardly existed. It was all out of his hands as was the country of Mexico itself. For an instant he recalled that he only had to step into the government building and ask for the General and the die would really be cast. Once and for all.
At the hotel he checked his watch for the hundredth time. He urinated again. Yet he seemed to feel a great interior calm while he gathered his few things, hung his laptop from his shoulder, and walked downstairs to check out.
In front of the entrance to the Palacio de Gobierno he stopped and put his bags at his feet. He peered at the guards and the people going in and out. “Where are the other journalists today … the periodistas?” he asked a young guard.
“Ya se fueran.” They left. The guard shrugged and turned away.
Again Jerry looked at his watch, shook it, and held it next to his ear. It was noon. If there was only one other journalist with him! They could travel together to the mountains. But as always he was alone. He stared at the guard absent-mindedly. He looked up and down the street. A sensation of weightlessness overcame him. It seemed as if he were a mere observer of events. He shrugged, went to the narrow entrance door, and asked for General Ortega.
At the window of a bare room just inside the patio, an older guard with stripes on his sleeves took his passport, stared at him for a long moment before putting his document in a drawer, handed him a plastic pass and ordered a soldier to escort him upstairs.
Like a robot Jerry followed obediently up the wide stairs. He was in their hands. He only had to follow instructions. A slim, pale white officer with a serious mien was standing in the wide door of a second floor office.
“Please come in, Mr. Scott. Unfortunately General Ortega was called to the capital for an urgent meeting of the General Staff. He asked me to brief you on the military situation here and give you all the necessary assistance for your meeting with the rebels.” The small, delicate officer spoke impeccable English, the kind upper class Mexicans acquire in the best American universities.
“First of all, I have for you General Ortega’s letter of presentation to the guerrilla comandante of what we consider a relatively safe part of our province. And, I’m happy to inform you that Comandante Arturo apparently speaks good English. That should facilitate your, uh, mission.”
Jerry was grinning, he himself realized, idiotically. Still infected by his sensation of remoteness, he hardly registered the officer’s words. He hadn’t spoken a word. He was as if disinterested. What did it all mean anyway? Since he’d left San Miguel Allende all volition had abandoned him. He just put one foot in front of the other and plodded ahead. Change was out of the question. He’d taken the dark bus for Mexico City. Like an automaton, he’d transferred at the North Station and now here he was with a letter for a rebel leader in his hands. Willy-nilly the investigative journalist was now standing on the brink of a leap into darkness.
“Too bad I couldn’t travel with the other journalists,” he muttered, looking at his hands still holding the general’s letter.
“Ah well, of little significance,” the adjutant said, with a wry smile. “Theirs is more like a tourist excursion. You know, lunches with local authorities, visits to agricultural sites, that kind of thing. You instead are going for the real thing. Only you will be able to meet with a rebel leader. Now, Señor Scott, here is the plan. Your destination is the village of Los Altos high in the Sierra Madre del Sur. The bus for Puerto del Gallo that stops in Los Altos leaves the bus station at 1500 hours - which gives you ample time for lunch in our quiet city. You will arrive there in a couple hours. Now at the gas station where the bus stops, you are ask for Comandante Arturo. Someone will pick you up. And, uh, don’t worry if you are blindfolded or driven around for hours. They’re quite security conscious, you see.”
Jerry listened from far away. The adjutant had a funny look in his eyes. “Uh, are my instructions clear?”
“Oh yes, clear.”
“By the way, you’re going, uh, quite high into the mountains.” The officer’s amused eyes moved down from Jerry’s Panama hat to his elegant khakis. “Quite cold at night, you know.”
“Oh well,” Jerry said.
I’m beginning to feel at home in this town, Jerry thought vaguely as he walked back toward the bus station. He’d only been here 18 hours but the familiar main street and official buildings created around him an atmosphere of security. He could be on Peachtree Street in Atlanta near Five Points. He would take the metro to Buckhead, maybe lunch in one of the Italian restaurants. Divorce, separations, estrangement hadn’t happened at all. He was conscious of how easy it was to forget San Miguel and Miranda and, yes, the little newspaper, and the writers too. If it just weren’t for this gnawing in his gut, the recall of the senseless thing he had set out to do, would do, was doing. What did he care about the guerrillas? And about arrogant General Ortega?
Across the street from the bus station he stopped abruptly and put down his bags as in an instant of clarity he realized he’d never given any thought to the real General Ortega. He only knew Miranda’s father had detested him. But what was the General anyway? Ortega was nothing more than an ambitious, cynical, lawless, authoritarian reactionary, willing to make a pact with the devil to further his own ends. Why without a second thought this man could offer up a victim to the rebels. To get me out of the life of his precious daughter! Forever. Without a second thought. I’m no one. Not even officially a journalist. How could my government protect me? I’ve just followed Miranda’s instructions. Maybe … could it be … that she is in on it too?
Slowly he crossed the wide street, daring but hardly looking at the gaseous buses and revving trucks and honking taxis. In the main hall he again examined the departure board. There it is – Estrella del Norte, Acapulco, 1500 hours, platform number 1. And farther down, under local buses and minor lines, Nacional, Puerto del Gallo, 1500 hours, platform 32.
His bags at his feet, the computer weighing heavy on his shoulder, for a moment he admitted that he’d only wanted to show off as he’d never had occasion to do in his safe life at home. It was the appealing idea of running risks. Of doing something extraordinary. And it was now or never. He looked at his feet and told himself that now, once and for all, he had to choose who he was to be - actor or observer. Yet, he felt that any decision was a wrong decision. And besides, what had he ever really decided in his life? Even coming to Mexico was hardly a decision. His ex-wife had said when he proudly told her he’d decided to move to Mexico that he was forced to flee. As he’d done from even the minor conflicts of their sedate life in Buckhead.
Gratefully he felt the comforting sensation of remoteness returning. Mentally he stepped backward. He was withdrawing. Again he was far away. Far from familiar things. He was floating. Far from his familiar past. Far from himself.
Jerry reached into his safari pocket. He withdrew General Ortega’s letter, carefully tore it into pieces, and threw it into a trash bin. A letter from their enemy would be disastrous if they were real guerrillas. If not, then he didn’t need it. He adjusted his Panama hat, pushed the strap of his laptop satchel close to his neck, picked up his two small bags, walked to the far end of the bus station, and with a new spring in his step leapt aboard the dilapidated bus for Puerto del Gallo.
Gaither Stewart can be reached at GaitherStewart@libero.it