T HE EARTH
I’m dead, Makina said to herself when everything lurched: a man with a cane was crossing the street,
a dull groan suddenly surged through the asphalt, the man stood still as if waiting for someone to
repeat the question and then the earth opened up beneath his feet: it swallowed the man, and with him
a car and a dog, all the oxygen around and even the screams of passers-by. I’m dead, Makina said to
herself, and hardly had she said it than her whole body began to contest that verdict and she flailed
her feet frantically backward, each step mere inches from the sinkhole, until the precipice settled into
a perfect circle and Makina was saved.
Slippery bitch of a city, she said to herself. Always about to sink back into the cellar.
This was the first time the earth’s insanity had affected her. The Little Town was riddled with
bullet holes and tunnels bored by five centuries of voracious silver lust, and from time to time some
poor soul accidentally discovered just what a half-assed job they’d done of covering them over. A
few houses had already been sent packing to the underworld, as had a soccer pitch and half an empty
school. These things always happen to someone else, until they happen to you, she thought. She had a
quick peek over the precipice, empathized with the poor soul on his way to hell. Happy trails, she
said without irony, and then muttered Best be on with my errand.
Her mother, Cora, had called her and said Go and take this paper to your brother. I don’t like to send
you, child, but who else can I trust it to, a man? Then she hugged her and held her there on her lap,
without drama or tears, simply because that’s what Cora did: even if you were two steps away it was
always as if you were on her lap, snuggled between her brown bosoms, in the shade of her fat, wide
neck; she only had to speak to you for you to feel completely safe. And she’d said Go to the Little
Town, talk to the top dogs, make nice and they’ll lend a hand with the trip.
She had no reason to go see Mr. Double-U first, but a longing for water led her to the steam where he
spent his time. She could feel the earth all the way under her nails as though she’d been the one to go
down the hole.
The sentry was a proud, sanguine boy who Makina had once shucked. It had happened in the
awkward way those things so often do, but since men, all of them, are convinced that they’re such
straight shooters, and since it was clear that with her he’d misfired, from then on the boy hung his
head whenever he ran into her. Makina strolled past him and he came out of his booth as if to say No
one gets through, or rather Not you, you’re not getting through, but his impulse lasted all of three
seconds, because she didn’t stop and he didn’t dare say any of those things and could only raise his
eyes authoritatively once she’d already gone by and was entering the Turkish baths.
Mr. Double-U was a joyful sight to see, all pale roundness furrowed with tiny blue veins; Mr.
Double-U stayed in the steam room. The pages of the morning paper were plastered to the tiles and
Mr. Double-U peeled them back one by one as he progressed in his reading. He looked at Makina,
unsurprised. What’s up, he said. Beer? Yeah, Makina said. Mr. Double-U grabbed a beer from a
bucket of ice at his feet, popped the top with his hand and passed it to her. They each uptipped the
bottle and drank it all down, as if it were a contest. Then in silence they enjoyed the scuffle between
the water inside and the water outside.
So how’s the old lady? Mr. Double-U inquired.
A long time ago, Cora had helped Mr. Double-U out; Makina didn’t know what had happened
exactly, just that at the time Mr. Double-U was on the run and Cora had hidden him till the storm blew
over. Ever since then, whatever Cora said was law.
Oh, you know. Alive, as she likes to say.
Mr. Double-U nodded, and then Makina added She’s sending me on an assignment, and indicated
a cardinal point.
Off to the other side? Mr. Double-U asked. Makina nodded yes.
Ok, go, and I’ll send word; once you’re there my man will get you across.
He’ll know you.
They sat in silence once more. Makina thought she could hear all the water in her body making
its way through her skin to the surface. It was nice, and she’d always enjoyed her silences with Mr.
Double-U, ever since she first met him back when he was a scared, skinny animal she brought pulque
and jerky to while he was in hiding. But she had to go, not just to do what she had to do, but because
no matter how tight she was with him, she knew she wasn’t allowed to be there. It was one thing to
make an exception, and quite another to change the rules. She thanked him, Mr. Double-U said Don’t
mention it, child, and she versed.
She knew where to find Mr. Aitch but wasn’t sure she’d be able to get in, even though she knew
the guy guarding the entrance there, too: a hood whose honeyed words she’d spurned, but she knew
what he was like. They said he’d offed a woman, among other things; left her by the side of the road
in an oil drum on orders from Mr. Aitch. Makina had asked him if it was true back when he was
courting her, and all he said was Who cares if I did or not, what counts is I please ’em all. Like it was
She got to the place. Pulquería Raskolnikova, said the sign. Beneath it, the guard. This one she
couldn’t swish past, so she stopped in front and said Ask him if he’ll see me. The guard stared back
with glacial hatred and gave a nod, but didn’t budge from the door; he stuck a piece of gum in his
mouth, chewed it for a while, spat it out. He eyed Makina a little longer. Then turned half-heartedly,
as though about to take a leak simply to pass the time, sauntered into the cantina, came back out and
leaned against the wall. Still saying nothing. Makina snorted and only then did the guard drawl Are
you going in or what?
Inside there were probably no more than five drunks. It was hard to tell for sure, because there
was often one facedown in the sawdust. The place smelled, as it should, of piss and fermented fruit.
In the back, a curtain separated the scum from the VIPs: though it was just a piece of cloth, no one
entered the inner sanctum without permission. I don’t have all day, Makina heard Mr. Aitch say.
She pulled the curtain aside and behind it found the bird-print shirt and glimmering gold that was
Mr. Aitch playing dominoes with three of his thugs. His thugs all looked alike and none had a name as
far as she knew, but not one lacked a gat. Thug .45 was on Mr. Aitch’s side playing against the two
Thugs .38. Mr. Aitch had three dominoes in his hand and glanced sidelong at Makina without setting
them down. He wasn’t going to invite her to sit.
You told my brother where to go to settle some business, said Makina. Now I’m off to find him.
Mr. Aitch clenched a fist around the bones and stared straight at her.
You gonna cross? he asked eagerly, though the answer was obvious. Makina said Yes.
Mr. Aitch smiled, sinister, with all the artlessness of a snake disguised as a man coiling around
your legs. He shouted something in a tongue Makina didn’t speak, and when the barman poked his
head around the curtain said Some pulque for the young lady.
The barman’s head disappeared and Mr. Aitch said Of course, young lady, of course … You’re
asking for my help, aren’t you? Too proud to spell it out but you’re asking me for help and I, look at
me, I’m saying Of course.
Here came the hustle. Mr. Aitch was the type who couldn’t see a mule without wanting a ride.
Mr. Aitch smiled and smiled, but he was still a reptile in pants. Who knew what the deal was with
this heavy and her mother. She knew they weren’t speaking, but put it down to his top-dog hubris.
Someone had spread that he and Cora were related, someone else that they had a hatchet to bury,
though she’d never asked, because if Cora hadn’t told her it was for a reason. But Makina could smell
the evil in the air. Here came the hustle.
All I ask is that you deliver something for me, an itty bitty little thing, you just give it to a
compadre and he’ll be the one who tells you how to find your kin.
Mr. Aitch leaned over toward one of the .38 thugs and said something in his ear. The thug got up
and versed from the VIP zone.
The barman reappeared with a dandy full of pulque.
I want pecan pulque, Makina said, and I want it cold, take this frothy shit away.
Perhaps she’d gone too far, but some insolence was called for. The barman looked at Mr. Aitch,
who nodded, and he went off to get her a fresh cup.
The thug returned with a small packet wrapped in gold cloth, tiny really, just big enough to hold
a couple of tamales, and gave it to Mr. Aitch, who took it in both hands.
Just one simple little thing I’m asking you to do, no call to turn chicken, eh?
Makina nodded and took hold of the packet, but Mr. Aitch didn’t let go.
Knock back your pulque, he said, pointing to the barman who’d reappeared, glass at the ready.
Makina slowly reached out a hand, drank the pecan pulque down to the dregs and felt its sweet
earthiness gurgle in her guts.
Cheers, said Mr. Aitch. Only then did he let the bundle go.
You don’t lift other people’s petticoats.
You don’t stop to wonder about other people’s business.
You don’t decide which messages to deliver and which to let rot.
You are the door, not the one who walks through it.
Those were the rules Makina abided by and that was why she was respected in the Village. She
ran the switchboard with the only phone for miles and miles around. It rang, she answered, they asked
for so and so, she said I’ll go get them, call back in a bit and your person will pick up, or I’ll tell you
what time you can find them. Sometimes they called from nearby villages and she answered them in
native tongue or latin tongue. Sometimes, more and more these days, they called from the North; these
were the ones who’d often already forgotten the local lingo, so she responded to them in their own
new tongue. Makina spoke all three, and knew how to keep quiet in all three, too.
The last of the top dogs had a restaurant called Casino that only opened at night and the rest of the day
was kept clear so the owner, Mr. Q, could read the papers alone at a table in the dining room, which
had high ceilings, tall mullioned windows and gleaming floorboards. With Mr. Q Makina had her own
backstory: two years before she’d worked as a messenger during emergency negotiations he and Mr.
Aitch held to divvy up the mayoral candidates when their supporters were on the verge of hacking one
another to pieces. Midnight messages to a jittery joe who had no hand in the backroom brokering and
suddenly, on hearing the words Makina relayed (which she didn’t understand, even if she
understood), decided to pull out. An envelope slipped to a small-town cacique who went from
reticent to diligent after a glance at the contents. Through her, the top dogs assured surrender here and
sweet setups there, no bones about it; thus everything was resolved with discreet efficiency.
Mr. Q never resorted to violence—at least there was nobody who’d say he did—and he’d
certainly never been heard to raise his voice. Anyhow, Makina had neither been naive nor lost any
sleep blaming herself for the invention of politics; carrying messages was her way of having a hand in
Casino was on a second floor, and the door downstairs was unguarded; why bother: who would
dare? But Makina had no time to ask for an appointment and anyone who knew her knew she wasn’t
one to put people out for the sake of it. She’d already arranged for her crossing and how to find her
brother, now she had to make sure there would be someone to help her back; she didn’t want to stay
there, nor have to endure what had happened to a friend who stayed away too long, maybe a day too
long or an hour too long, at any rate long enough too long that when he came back it turned out that
everything was still the same, but now somehow all different, or everything was similar but not the
same: his mother was no longer his mother, his brothers and sisters were no longer his brothers and
sisters, they were people with difficult names and improbable mannerisms, as if they’d been copied
off an original that no longer existed; even the air, he said, warmed his chest in a different way.
She walked up the stairs, through the mirrored hall and into the room. Mr. Q was dressed, as
usual, in black from neck to toe; there were two fans behind him and on the table a national paper,
open to the politics. Beside it, a perfect white cup of black coffee. Mr. Q looked her in the eye as
soon as Makina versed the mirrored hall, as if he’d been waiting for her, and when she stood before
him he made a millimetric move with his head that meant Sit. A few seconds later, without being told,
a smocked waiter approached with a cup of coffee for her.
I’m going to the Big Chilango, Makina said; no bush-beating for Mr. Q, no lengthy preambles or
kowtows here: even if it seemed that skimming the news was downtime, that was where his world
was at work; and she added On a bus, to take care of some family business.
You’re going to cross, said Mr. Q. It wasn’t a question. Of course not. Forget trying to figure out
how he’d heard about it so fast.
You’re going to cross, Mr. Q repeated, and this time it sounded like an order. You’re going to
cross and you’re going to get your feet wet and you’re going to be up against real roughnecks; you’ll
get desperate, of course, but you’ll see wonders and in the end you’ll find your brother, and even if
you’re sad, you’ll wind up where you need to be. Once you arrive, there will be people to take care
of everything you require.
He spoke each word very clearly, without stressing any, without moving a single muscle that
wasn’t strictly necessary. He stopped speaking and took one of Makina’s hands, wrapped his fist
around it and said This is your heart. Got it?
Mr. Q didn’t blink. The light swept the steam from their coffee cups crossways, infusing the air
with its bitter scent. Makina thanked him and versed out of there.
She stopped in the mirrored hall to think for a moment about what Mr. Q had said; sometimes she
preferred the crass talk of Mr. Aitch, and certainly the slow celebratory tone with which Mr. DoubleU spoke; but with Mr. Q nothing went to waste, it was always like pebbles were pouring from his
lips, even if she didn’t rightly know what each one was supposed to mean.
She looked into the mirrors: in front of her was her back: she looked behind but found only the
never-ending front, curving forward, as if inviting her to step through its thresholds. If she crossed
them all, eventually, after many bends, she’d reach the right place; but it was a place she didn’t trust.
T HE WATER CRO SSI NG
She couldn’t get lost. Every time she came to the Big Chilango she trod softly, because that was not
the place she wanted to leave her mark, and she told herself repeatedly that she couldn’t get lost, and
by get lost she meant not a detour or a sidetrack but lost for real, lost forever in the hills of hills
cementing the horizon; or lost in the awe of all the living flesh that had built and paid for palaces.
That was why she chose to travel underground to the other bus depot. Trains ran around the entire
circulatory system but never left the body; down there the heavy air would do her no harm, and she
ran no risk of becoming captivated. And she mustn’t get lost or captivated, too many people were
waiting for her. Someone was covering her post at the switchboard while she was away, but only she
spoke all three tongues and only she had mastered the poker face for bad news and the nonchalance
with which certain names, oh, so long yearned for, had to be pronounced.
Most important were the ones awaiting her without caring what tongues she spoke or how she
couriered. Her kid sister, who’d press close up beside her to eavesdrop on adult troubles, eyes round
with attention, hands on knees. Makina could feel her absorbing the world, storing away the passions
that came and went along the phone cord. (Of course I still love you, Very soon, Any day now, Hold
your horses, Did you get it? Did she tell you? When was that? How did it happen? How in the
name of God is that possible? His name is so and so, Her name is such and such, Don’t get me
wrong, I never even dreamed, I don’t live here anymore.) She was growing up quickly, and in a
man’s world, and Makina wanted to educate her as to the essentials: how to take stock of them and
how to put up with them; how to savor them. How even if they’ve got filthy mouths, they’re fragile;
and even if they’re like little boys, they can really get under your skin.
And the boyfriend. A boyfriend she had and who she referred to that way though they’d never
discussed it and she didn’t feel like anyone’s girl, but she called him her boyfriend because he acted
so much like a boyfriend that not calling him so, at least to herself, would have been like denying him
something written all over his face. A boyfriend. She’d shucked him for the first time back during the
brouhaha about the mayors. The day it all ended Makina felt a little like getting wasted, but she didn’t
so much feel like liquor, it was more an itch to shake her body, so she’d been reckless and gone and
shucked him as she had others on a couple of trips to the Little Town; what’s more, it had been an
entirely forgettable foray. And, no question, she’d shaken off the exhaustion of an ordeal that was now
over; but even though she hadn’t wanted to be fawned over, just wanted a man to lend himself, he had
touched her with such reverence that it must have been smoldering inside him for ages.
She’d seen him before at the door of the elementary school where he worked, had noticed the
way he wouldn’t look at her, looking instead at every other thing around her; that was where she
picked him up, sauntered over saying she needed a shawl so that he’d put his arms round her, took him
for a stroll, laughed like a halfwit at everything he said, especially if it wasn’t funny, and finally
reeled him in on a line she was tugging from her bedroom. The man made love with a feverish
surrender, sucked her nipples into new shapes, and when he came was consumed with tremors of
After that the man had gone to work in the Big Chilango, and when he came back months later he
showed up at the switchboard to tell her something, looking so cocksure and so smart that she guessed
what it was that he wanted to say and fixed it so she wouldn’t be left alone with him. The man
hovered in silence for hours on end until she said Come back another day, we’ll talk. But when he
came back she asked him about his gig and about his trip and never about what was going on inside.
Then she asked him to stop coming to her work, said she’d seek him out instead. And she did: every
weekend they’d shuck, and whenever she sensed he was about to declare himself, Makina would kiss
him with extra-dirty lust just to keep his mouth shut. So she’d managed to put off defining things until
the eve of the journey she was being sent on by Cora. Then, before she could silence him, he threw up
his hands and though he didn’t touch her she felt like he was hurling her from the other end of the
You’re scared of me, he said. Not cause of something I did, just cause you want to be.
He’d stood and was facing her, straightening his sky-blue shirt; he was leaving without making
love, but Makina didn’t say anything because she saw how hard it had been for him to get up from the
bed; she could play dumb—I don’t know what you’re talking about—or accuse him of making a
scene, but the slight tremble betrayed by his lips, the bot ...
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