Chepo Menard ate and talked at impressive speed. He finished the caviar appetizer, chased a few stray eggs on the tablecloth with a moist finger and licked them. A wine stain grew on the linen tablecloth next to his napkin. Adrián Landeros listened, his thoughts hidden beneath his smile. Behind him the breeze entered through the Art Deco windows to caress the organza drapes, the Manila shawl draped over the concert piano: all the chinerías and japonerías embellishing his mansion for two hundred years and counting. Each room was designed to enjoy the sea, to celebrate its roar, its palpitations. As children we had run through his house, rolled down the silken sands of Playa Careyes. In the garden, the topiary trees, shaped as dragons, mermaids and seashells, invited our storytelling.
The Nereid on the cedar tree told the story of how Karina and I taught the little ones to kiss.
The Poseidon on the ficus told of the first time I drank from Fabián’s mouth.
At Adrián’s parties the guitar trio beckoned for him and doña Luz to lead the dance. On the marble checkerboard floor, Luz’s high heels mapped boleros and danzones. As the Christmas fireworks entranced the old ones, we kids would steal the dregs from their wine glasses. Our bellies warmed by the strange fire, we walked down the terrace steps to the topiary garden. We greeted the Nereids, the hunter Artemis, Poseidon the lover, the sea horses on which they galloped. Under the densest tree we sat on a marble bench and lowered our voices.
Karina explained the rules of Semana de Amor. Sit opposite your partners, touching backs. The girls look towards the house, the boys to the sea. Alonso, you with me. Mariana, you and Osvaldo. Rosana with Roberto. Luis needs a partner. You too, Fabián.
Luis and I can go together, said Fabián.
No no no. This game is boys and girls.
Fabián, you with me, said Rosana. Roberto can judge.
So Fabián sat with Rosana. Would they kiss? After all I was sitting with Karina.
Karina said, When the judges call Monday, the first couple crane their necks. If they look the same way, they kiss. If they look the other way the girl slaps the boy.
And the judges?
You call slaps or kisses. Alonso, let’s show them.
Monday, Roberto and Luis pronounced. Kiss!
Karina and I faced each other and demonstrated how a kiss lets you give of yourself, and receive from someone else. The littles watched and practiced air kissing.
Then it was Fabián and Rosana’s turn.
Slap, Luis announced.
Rosana raised her hand, then dropped it flat on Fabián’s cheek. We all said Ay! and Rosana giggled. I saw his eyes shine through my tears.
Before their next turn I felt Rosana wiggle behind me. Was she telling Fabián where to turn?
They stood up and turned. Rosana propped her knee on the bench, placed her hands on his shoulders. She opened her mouth and took in his. It was a long, shuddering kiss. I was parched.
When the moon hid behind the clouds, we played hide and seek. With our arms outstretched we entangled ourselves in the Poseidon of our childhood fantasies. We asked to join him on his adventures.
I felt Fabián’s moist solar plexus, his musky scent. He whispered Hola, placed his hand on my waist. I took his hand, put his fingers in my mouth.
He pushed my chin up, forced me to bite. I sucked on his fingers, thirsty. Then gently, he pulled them out, licked them, and went on his way.
When the game ended and everyone left, I sat on the dune behind the garden.
Can you tell where the water ends and the sky begins?
I smelled Fabián’s musk before he was next to me.
Watch the stars. Some don’t move. The others sway on the waves, singing.
We hummed with the waves and the stars floating on them. Our voices followed the breeze pushing and pulling, the choir of seashells tumbling with the undertow like tiny, disorderly marimbas.
The breezes picked up. Poseidon towered behind us, murmuring his numerous secrets. Fabián turned towards me. His mouth was a small, dark sea.
On the waves, the stars serenaded our forbidden kiss.
* * *
Years later it was not stars or water, but dust fairies dancing on the sunbeam at my bedroom window. They bounced to my guitar’s E string. Then they swirled in the draft Clavel created as she opened the door.
Can’t you wait, Clave? Villa-Lobos gets clubfooted if he doesn’t finish his Bachianas.
She nodded, cleared a pile of music papers from a chair, brushed the dust off.
I have to clean this room.
Oh, please don’t. I like to have my things out. I will clean better.
She opened her fan and swung it nervously. Alonso, I need to talk to you. Have you thought what you want to do now that you have your Master’s degree? We’re lucky there are people who can help you on your path.
I have my path, Clave de Sol.
G-Clef, the leading voice—her nickname was perfect.
I’ll keep teaching, giving concerts. Building a name takes time.
That’s all gone well so far. I saw Excélsior called you successor to Enrique Tórrez. Is he really the best guitarist in Mexico?
A heat rose on my face. Excélsior always exaggerates.
I am proud of you, your talent. You can keep it all up if you manage your time. But now, isn’t it time to get a job?
I have a full-time job at the university, Clave.
She closed her fan with a clap.
Teaching is a good hobby for the children of moneyed families. I hope I haven’t given you the wrong impression. You might think we can live off what Remigio left, but it is not much. En este país—in this country you can’t predict what will happen to your savings—or the bank. One moment you feel you’re set; the next, politicians and bankers fiddle with exchange rates, and your bills are good for wrapping peanuts at the market. That is what happened to our father. That is why I had to—
That’s why I have my income. I don’t take anything from Remigio’s money. Yours, I should say. I need very little, and I cover it with my salary. Is what I have been paying into the household budget enough? Should I add some?
Of course not! I never asked you anything.
Then I don’t understand, Clave.
My chords fanned into soft arpeggios. Her fan sped up.
I am talking about the family. Humor me, cariño. Now is the time to build a patrimony.
What would you like me to do? I played a downward scale. Then with a loud strum I crossed my arms on the instrument.
Why don’t you talk to Chepo Menard? Adrián says he needs a manager for one of his restaurants.
Isn’t that the guy who ruined Adrián’s house by building those monster towers next door? Are they friends?
I wouldn’t say friends, but they have mutual interests. You see, sometimes people have to put aside the timidities in their hearts and be practical. Have foresight.
Tell me about that, Clave de Sol.
What’s in your heart.
I realized I had never known. I started Villa-Lobos’s first prelude with a long and pensive glissando. I played the rhythmic chords softly. The melody asked all the questions that came to my mind.
In my heart? There is worry. I have been alone most of my life. Without you we are a handful of mujeres solas. Look at Mariana. It’s been five years since she left for New York, with no plans of settling down. And Luisa with her paintings. Neither seems to know how to contribute to the household, nor think of marrying. It is my fault; I should have made you understand. But here we are, and we need you.
I kept my eyes on the intricate movements of my left hand. The Prelude’s dense, insistent chords echoed her voice. When I reached the cascades of tumbling sounds, I looked up, and my heart skipped. Clavel was standing near the window, her face wet.
I had never seen my sister cry. She was my surrogate mother, the unwavering head of this family, the strongest person I knew. And her tears were not unfounded. The documents Adrián had shown me when I turned eighteen revealed that she did not even own our home. How Remigio had come to hold the title to our parents’ house no one explained. On his deathbed, in an untold spite, Remigio had bestowed the home on his daughters instead of on her. All she had was an allowance for the household. Even I, his adoptive son, enjoyed more largesse than his widow. Thanks to him I had music, the meaning of my life.
I walked towards her, holding the guitar. I placed my hand on her arm. I’m sorry, Clave. I had not understood.
She pulled a handkerchief from her strap, blotted a makeup smudge. She stood taller, her poise recovered. How old was she—forty, forty-two? Would she always be as unflinching? I was an orphan like her, but she had given me a happy childhood, never let me feel alone or unsafe. And who stood by her?
Until now she had never asked me anything. It was as if she had stashed all chances to petition me, precious seeds against a famine.
I picked up some books from the floor and placed them on the shelf. Could I acquire the house from my nieces? I imagined Clavel’s joy as I placed the title in her hands. But how? My university job offered a modest salary. I would be old before I saved enough. She, much older. It was like limping after a fast-moving target.
I can try with Menard. But you have to know—I won’t give up my performances or tours.
Oh, will you! Clavel smiled in a way I had never seen. She touched my arm. There was a faint tremor in her fingers. Have you seen Karina, dear?
Last month, during a concert in Guadalajara. She brought so many friends they took up a whole row. Then we had supper. She is doing well.
She’s become a beautiful woman.
I chuckled. Now now, Clavel. All in good time. We are young. And I have this new adventure, don’t I?
You’ll see how good it will be. Haven’t I always said Alonso can do it all? I’ll support your performances. And you’ll have the satisfaction of watching your accounts grow. Of having a future. You won’t regret it!
She hugged me for the first time in years.
I know, Clave de Sol.
* * *
I remembered Clavel’s hug, the optimism in her face as I sat between Menard and Adrián. The house, the fantastical garden persisted. The beach before the great windows too, though diminished by the towers flanking the mansion.
This pinche town is dying, Menard said.
Adrián said, How can you say that? You of all people know Ayotlan’s potential. You have invested so much.
That was before the recession. Now look at the Malecón. Many hotels are half empty, many up for sale, all crumbling plaster. The prices are so low all you get are spring breakers sleeping eight to a room. How can we earn a living?
We can, Chepo. We have to ride out this slump.
To bankruptcy? Wake up, Adrián. We built the best, but it was out of style before the paint dried. Mmta!
He shoveled forkfuls of shrimp al ajillo into his mouth.
It’s time for new investments, friend.
Was Menard suggesting drugs? Adrián raised his wine glass to his lips, too polite to point out that Menard alone had made the decisions he was calling ours.
I drank ice water, waited for the boss to feel sated and turn his attention to me. Then it would be like a rock rolling down. I followed the conversation, but kept going back to the waves droning in a deep, regular timbre. Sometimes a large one crashed like a cymbal, spewing foam in a tall column like a whale’s blowhole. Playing the game Fabián and I invented kept me calm. What would he say if I told him music was great, but now I needed to make dough?
I put him out of my mind before the regret overtook me.
Look at Cancún, Menard said. The hotels keep tourists focused. Scuba, cabaret, water parks, all you can eat and drink. Where is that here? You know I’ve tried.
This was, apparently, their decade-long discussion.
You’ll see, old friend. One day you’ll come around.
Adrián’s face darkened.
So far you’re doing a great job. How long have those coffins been there?
Outside, the trees did their best to conceal the towers flanking the house like prison guards.
Alonso here was a boy when you played that trick on me, friend.
Menard laughed. A morsel flew out of his mouth and landed on my wrist. Adrián looked pointedly at me, and I repressed the impulse to wipe it off.
Those towers are our future, friend.
I said, I remember when they were built, don Chepo. You came to a party to propose the project. You brought Karina, your niece.
Oh, the little princess. Now—this place is not lost. We just need the central tower, the fence. Give tourists what they want—
And that would be?
You don’t suppose they want to mingle with Ayotlecos? What they want is to fly in, ride an airtight taxi to their hotel, see the gate lock behind them, roast their pasty cojones. Then they fly back to their airtight countries and freeze their asses off the rest of the year.
Adrián brought his glass to his lips.
They want clean people to serve them and shut up.
I excused myself. In the restroom I washed the food and spit off my wrist. I filed the fingernails on my left hand, hummed the song of the file—zis, zas. The water as it tumbled down the drain—dug dug.
Back at the table, Adrián had apparently ridden out the rant.
Chepo knit his eyebrows into a black and white tangle and looked at me. I hear you know how to listen. That’s good for business.
For a restaurant?
You hear a lot of gossip. Who lost money, who fell down drunk, who died and how. You listen.
If the job is listening I can do it.
You come and tell me. Especially when the cops show up.
He brought his index finger below his eye. He touched his palm to his lips. Watch and shut up. The cops know nothing unless someone talks. And we don’t have much to say, hey?
My shoulders contracted.
You pick out the champagne and the cognac. Have everything go smooth. You see something weird, give me a call. Luego luego.
That’s that. When are you showing up?
There, where. He pointed at one of the towers behind the trees.
If I took your offer, I’d need to put in my notice, finish the semester. I have a concert tour in Mexico City, Puebla, Querétaro. It ends in a month.
Menard laughed, slapped his thigh. If! One month! Next week, boy. Send your students a note.
He got up, scraped the floor with the chair. I have to pay my respects to the white god. Compadre, talk to this escuincle.
Adrián patted my forearm. Try it for a year, he whispered. What harm is there?
I was embarrassed for Adrián. I hadn’t known how important this was to him.
If the job is managing the room I can do it. I like seeing people enjoy themselves. I can organize my time. I can give up teaching, but not the concerts.
Adrián seemed relieved. About the concerts—he said when Chepo returned.
You want concerts? Give me your schedule. We’ll have to train someone for when you’re away. What do you say to the boss? He manipulated his crotch and sat down.
You’re the boss.
Right. Chepo’s nose glistened under the chandelier. He peered at my hands.
Those fingernails have to go.
They’re for the guitar.
Ah ah. The cops will think you’re some cokehead. That will not work.
He rubbed his nose. He glanced at Adrián.
It would not, Adrián said with a quick smile.
And just like that. I, Alonso Celis Coulson, musician and professor, became an employee. A yes man, and a spy.
Achichincle, nahuatl word: person who stands by another in order to drink.
* * *
Ways of staying alive: swimming in Vinícius de Moraes or Lauríndo Almeida. Turning my car into a sounding board. Jumping into the noisy street felt what a marlin might when yanked onto a trawler. On my way to work I had to pass Adrián’s house surrounded by the din of building machinery. I rushed through a crowd of young people dressed in blue t-shirts with a logo of wavy lines saying Salva Careyes. They shouted about historic buildings. In my past life I would have stopped and heard their grievances, offered support.
In the restaurant the air conditioning pricked my skin. Worse than losing the music for the street noise was the nauseous shock of Muzak in this cold enclosure. Surely Menard would see that quality music could enhance the dining experience, but I needed a chance to talk to him. I was still learning what made the room flow, to anticipate what needed attention. And fighting the sickly feeling that I was in the wrong place.
The absence of music was but one reason. In the past weeks Menard had spoken to me once. That, he said, was a sign of his trust.
Buenos días, señor Celis.
Alonso, Julián. That’s my name.
Sí, señor Celis.
Julián was stubbornly formal. That trait must have helped him land the host’s job. He showed me the reservation book—not full, but better than last week. I checked on the waiters. that Omar guy was not blocking Menard’s office door.
I did the rounds, approved today’s specials, updated the supplies list, went out, and gave over to the passion of Antonio Lauro. I would need two trips to transport the supplies. Much better than riding next to Omar’s AK-47.
I first saw the rifle when Omar drove me to introduce the suppliers to me. He climbed into the truck parked on the sidewalk before the entrance door. The truck was red with hand-painted flames on its sides as though from burning wheels. Omar took the rifle from the passenger seat.
Check Kalashnikov out, kid. Kala rides shotty, but she can give you her spot. Don’t worry; the lock is on.
Beautiful wood. Tiger oak? Like my guitar’s.
Like it? It’s never too late to play with men’s toys. See through the viewfinder.
That would mean aiming at something.
He snarled. Throw it next to my spear gun, kid. They keep each other company.
He gunned the engine and made the truck jump. When I hit my head against the backrest he laughed as if at a big joke.
I soon learned to focus on the work, talk less. Omar enjoyed catching me by surprise. He appeared from behind and growled, How goes it, boy? He stood guard at Menard’s door. Cuadrado—feet planted apart, brandishing the spear gun or the rifle. When he caught my eye he would give a big grin.
He was probably reporting on me, but why? All I wanted was to get through the day. What was there to find out about me?
* * *
The best time started at two in the morning.
Buenas noches, Mister Celis, said Julián, in jeans and a sweatshirt, the gym bag with his formal clothes hanging from his shoulder. Good night. You don’t want a ride? It’s just ten blocks to my house, he said like every night. So I locked the door, dimmed the dining room lights and carried my glass of water up the spiral stairs. In my loft office the window gave me the saline spray of Careyes beach and Adrián’s mansion. I sat at my desk and gave myself two or three hours of practice. With authors like Lauro or Villa-Lobos I fancied the gods and seahorses pruned on Adrián’s ancient cedars.
I turned my desk lamp off to distinguish the stars swaying on the waves from the static ones. Through the water in my glass all of them danced sensuously.
What a different feel there was at the restaurant absent Menard and his associates. The first time he hosted businessmen in his office I went in to introduce myself and offer a special wine. Blow him the fuck up! I heard as Menard unlocked the door.
Why, you want to blow up my nephew here? Menard used the deflection tactic I soon learned to recognize. You’re like my nephew, right, Toncho?
My name is Alonso Celis Coulson. Encantado. I tried to correct the nickname Menard had given me without making it sound like a correction.
I often heard blow and crush and cut. But what those men would liquidate was not the deal or the problem. They said, Tear him apart; hack up those guys.
People seemed obstacles in their way to dominance. But was it metaphor, or real wrongdoing? The only person I knew who had an answer was Adrián, but he was unreachable behind his veil of courtesy. Polite gesture, gentle word, impeccable dress were his shield against vulgarity and cruelty. But lately his steadfastness appeared under assault. Once Menard shouted, You’ve been standing too long in my way. I am finishing the damn thing I started, with or without you. A haggard, muttering Adrián left the restaurant. The activists in the blue t-shirts shouted slogans at him. His face blanched, Adrián brandished his cane. What could they be defending against the defender of historic Ayotlan?
Menard’s power was his money. But where did it come from? The books were clear—in the past year the restaurant had broken even once. His hotels were half empty, yet he kept building more. It was clear that tourism was not his focus. This was Sinaloa, nineteen-ninety, for crying out loud.
I slid the glissando of Villa-Lobos’s first prelude. And me—how close could I get to crime and stay clean? I could hold on to management, deal with the waitresses and bartenders, Julián. I enjoy offering customers a pleasurable meal. What happened in the back office had nothing to do with me. I could stay in a fog of ambiguity. What do I know, anyway?
As long as I have nights and my music. And above all, the trips. There I have rehearsals, master classes, recording sessions; I share music with hundreds, no one watching me. In the concert halls I close my eyes, bathed by floodlights, make the audience follow my nimble melodies.
I am known in musical circles; but on the streets of large cities no one knows me. I like walking in bustling neighborhoods, stopping at food stands, exploring places that have nothing to do with me—a hardware store where honest men dip calloused hands into bins of screws, a papelería where school children seek illustrations for a Day of Revolution project. Once in Mexico City I took a walk around the Ciudadela and got lost for hours. I asked directions and slowly made my way back to the hotel. If only I could lose myself for good. I would change my name—grow a beard and color my hair. I would take new students, establish my reputation under a new name. I would contact Clavel and the girls, and they would visit me. Far from it all.
Luis Bonfá pulled me back to Ayotlan. Outside, the full moon cast lovely shadows on Adrián’s trees. Nothing relaxes me more than Bonfá combined with the aromas of the ocean and the sight of beauty. If only music could bend life to its rules.
But life refused to yield. It was there in footsteps and a clanking of metal. Two shadows approached Adrián’s house—a young man and a woman wearing blue t-shirts, carrying handcuffs. I watched them, playing mechanically.
They looked in all directions. The man stood with his back to the gate of Adrián’s house, and the woman brought the handcuffs to him. Then she locked him to the gate! She took another set of handcuffs and, with a struggle, chained herself too—a reverse Houdini number.
Now they stood there, looking up and down the street like idiots.
Whatever those pranksters were up to was not my business, but it was Adrián’s. I took the phone and dialed his number. It rang twelve, sixteen times.
I did some scales, watching the innocuous couple. Then I thought of the t-shirts, and put my glasses on. The logo read Salva Careyes.
I dialed again. It rang sixteen times. Twenty-four.
A roar came around the corner. A red pickup truck parked across the street.
* * *
I threw myself at the cab, but it swerved around me. The driver pointed at the sign on the roof with the word “Libre.” It was the second I had tried to hail after I discovered my car’s starter dead. It was Saturday, four in the morning. Many revelers were leaving night clubs. Where were the taxis?
I walked on the shaded parts of the Malecón. With a little luck I would get to the airport and catch the first flight to Chihuahua. I would arrive two days before my first concert. I checked my watch. Seven minutes had passed since I left the restaurant.
I kept an eye out for a miraculous taxi. Miracles happen. I could make a deposition. There were historic buildings laws. People wanted to preserve these things.
A ringing echoed in my ear. I had just spent an hour hanging from the phone while two fools stood chained to Adrián’s gate. Then came the crimson truck with the flaming wheels. Omar and a pot-bellied man jumped off, carrying large rolls of duct tape. The youths smiled, said something. With grins on their lips, Omar and the fat man cut strips of tape. As they taped their mouths, the protestors started straining as if they could uproot the iron bars. Like in a dance, Omar and the fat man worked on the young man, and he kicked them. The gordo stood on his feet and held on to the gate, his belly crushing the young man against the iron bars. Omar rolled a long strip of tape around the man’s knees, another around his ankles. He bound his arms. He added tape to his mouth. Soon he looked like a half-dressed mummy.
They took longer with the woman—she writhed. They groped. They taped below and above her breasts as though fashioning a bra, then squeezed as if milking her. The tape covered the logo in her t-shirt.
Omar bared his teeth and threatened to bite her. Her moan and the men’s laughter made my hand shake on the telephone. Where would I find a police officer Menard did not own?
With a metal cutter, Omar broke the man’s handcuffs, then reinforced the tape around his hands and taped his eyes. The gordo leaned over and heaved his feet without warning. Omar caught the falling torso as though a hay bale. The young man groaned as the gorillas dropped him on the truck bed, his body convulsing. The same terror and damage followed for the woman. She moaned like a wounded tiger.
The gorillas wiped their hands and walked towards the truck, then Omar glared up at my darkened window. Quietly, I pressed the button on the telephone’s cradle. Omar jumped into the truck and drove off.
I took a last sip of water, gathered my papers, my guitar. But soon a bulldozer and a truck with telescoping arm and wrecking ball arrived, Omar behind them. He took a key and opened the gate as though at his house, let the machines drive onto the lawn.
The wrecking ball met the windows, raining glass in an endless racket, collapsing the curtains like ghosts of better years. On the lawn, the bulldozer drove over my childhood heroes. Colonies of squirrels, rabbits and birds escaped at the demise of Poseidon and the Nereids.
Omar’s truck rolled slowly past Adrián’s house. In the truck’s bed, the youths writhed like swordfish on a trawler’s deck.
* * *
I run on the Malecón, call a taxi. I have little voice left. I am dying for a sip of water.
Once in Chihuahua I will file charges with that prosecutor. Camargo is his name. It is a miracle he took the phone at four in the morning.
Then I will live for music. Stay away.
I hear the screech of speeding cars, the squeals of late-night revelers, the drone of techno music. Their song is not unadorned.
Then a wail approaches. An old, red Impala turns the corner with its claxon stuck, ululating unremittingly. Its exhaust spews blue smoke. It leads a procession of cars that are all the same.
A VW beetle pierces the Impala’s cloud of smoke. It is rusty red.
A scarlet station wagon with ruddy wooden panels.
An illegal taxi ignores my call. Bloody red.
A Ford Galaxy, crimson.
A red truck stops before me. Flames come out of its wheels.
Hey, Mister Celis, need a ride?