1. Tell TELL
It’s easy to get sucked into playing morbid games. When I was little, I happily went along with a few.
I played one with Renee Jr., the daughter of the woman who gave me my second perm. She and Renee Sr. lived in a tall apartment building across the street from the used bookstore where I sometimes spent my allowance. Sycamore trees towered in a nearby park, and when their leaves turned penny-colored and crunchy, falling and carpeting the grass, they created the illusion that we lived somewhere that experienced passionate seasons. Santa Maria’s seasons could be hard to detect. The closest we came to getting snow were whispers of frost that half dusted our station wagon’s windshield, hardly enough to write your name in.
Renee Sr.’s face was as gorgeous as my mother’s. The scar above her lip accented her beauty. Above her living room TV hung a framed cross-stitch, God Bless Our Pad
. I sat on a black dining room chair in the kitchen, trying to look out the window above the sink. The sky was a boring blue. Cars chugged along Main Street. A gust of wind sent sycamore leaves scattering. Renee Sr. gathered my hair in her hands, winding it around rollers. The ragged cash my mother had paid her was stacked on the kitchen counter. Beside the money, chicken thighs defrosted.
My feet rubbed the spotless linoleum floor. I liked the sensation of my tight socks gliding against it.
“Hold still,” said Renee Sr. “Quit squirming.” Renee Sr. had a perm and an odd, impatient voice. She sounded how I imagined an ant would. Dangerously high-pitched. Venomous.
Once her mother was done setting my hair, a grinning Renee Jr. waved at me, inviting me to her bedroom. I accepted. Renee Jr. had inherited her mother’s beauty, accented by long teeth instead of a knotty scar.
Renee Jr. and I knelt on her chocolate-colored carpet. The apartment, including her room, smelled of buttered flour tortillas and fabric softener. The scent made me feel held, safe, and I couldn’t wait to rinse the perm solution out of my hair so that I could sniff that fragrance again. The stuff Renee Sr. had squirted on me made my head stink and my scalp burn.
Renee Jr. dumped a pile of Barbie dolls between us. Lifting one by her asymmetrical pageboy, I asked, “You’re allowed to cut their hair?”
Renee Jr. petted a blonde and nodded.
“They’re mine,” she said. “I can do whatever I want to them.”
I tried not to act envious. I wasn’t allowed to cut my dolls’ hair or my own. My mother had put that rule in place after I tried giving myself Cleopatra bangs.
With the bedroom door closed, Renee Jr.’s dolls enacted scenes inspired by US and Latin-American soap operas. They yelled, wept, shook, and made murderous threats. They lied and broke promises. They trembled, got naked, and banged stiff pubic areas. Clack, clack, clack. They slapped and bit. They hurt one another on purpose and laughed instead of apologizing. They cheated, broke up, got back together, and cheated again.
They were lesbians.
They had no choice.
Renee Jr. had no male dolls.
Renee Jr. carried a distraught lesbian to the open window. I hurried after her.
She shrieked, “I can’t take it anymore! I’m gonna jump!”
Silhouetted against the boring blue, we watched the doll go up, pause, and then plummet. Face-first, she smacked the ground unceremoniously. She’s dead
, I thought.
Renee Jr. and I looked at each other. Smiled. We had discovered something fun. Throwing dolls out the window and watching them fall ten stories was something we probably weren’t supposed to be doing. Soon, all of Renee Jr.’s dolls were scattered along the sidewalk beneath her window, contorted in death poses, and we had nothing left to play with but ourselves.
My parents owned a book with glossy reproductions of paintings and drawings by Frida Kahlo. One of the paintings, The Suicide of Dorothy Hale
, looked like the game invented by Renee Jr.
I was growing out my perm. I liked the one Renee Sr. had given me better than the first one I’d gotten, but I didn’t plan on getting a third.
Gilda’s mother and mine were downstairs drinking coffee and gossiping in Spanish. Gilda’s mother spoke Spanish Spanish. She was Spanish and had a challenging nickname. In Spanish Spanish, the nickname didn’t mean anything. It was cute gibberish. In Mexican Spanish, it meant underwear.
Regina, Gilda’s across-the-cul-de-sac neighbor, was with us. We were gathered in Gilda’s bedroom, and I was wearing a shawl, white wig, and granny glasses. Gilda had told me to put these things on. She said it would make the ghost stories I wanted to tell more realistic.
I rocked in the corner rocking chair, reciting ghost stories until I ran out.
We shared some silence.
I continued to rock.
Regina said, “We should play a game.”
I was hesitant. Regina’s games usually led to sudden humping, and I didn’t want to be humped by Regina.
“What game?” asked Gilda.
“Delivery room,” answered Regina.
“How do you play?” asked Gilda.
Regina said, “Well, there’s three of us, so one of us can be the doctor, one of us can be the pregnant lady, and one of us can be the husband!”
“Okay!” we said.
Regina told Gilda to get a pillow or stuffed animal and stick it under her sweater. Gilda chose a pair of lace-edged pillows and followed instructions, creating a lumpy bulge.
“Looks like twins!” said Regina. She ordered Gilda onto her bed and said, “Spread your legs.” Regina rolled up her sleeves and said, “Ma’am, you’re gonna have to push.” Looking at me, she said, “Sir, you have to support your wife. This is one of the hardest moments of her life. It could kill her.”
I composed myself and fell into my role. I was a married man. I had to support my wife. She could die. The twins could kill her. I hadn’t considered this when I’d gotten her pregnant.
After five minutes of huffing, groaning, panting, and pushing, Gilda gave birth to fat, healthy twins. We rotated roles, quickly realizing that the best role was pregnant lady. The worst was husband. All he did was cheerlead. I gave birth five times. The first two times, my babies survived. The third time, my baby died. We made the corner where the rocking chair stood the cemetery. We had funerals for babies and women who died in childbirth. I died twice.
When was the last time you played a death game?
Were you alone or did you play with others?
How much did you trust them?
In Philosophical Investigations
, Ludwig Wittgenstein postulates that “?‘games’ form a family.” To that I would add that players form a family.
The game I played with Renee Jr. is related to the game I played with Gilda and Regina. I mostly trusted the kids I played with, but my guard stayed up around Regina, especially when she was doctor, and I was pregnant lady. Pregnant lady is vulnerable. Doctor is powerful. Danger breathes in the space between them.
My father tells stories about growing up in Norwalk, California. Celebrities sometimes visited. In 1955, Bela Lugosi came to town. Known the world over for his portrayals of Dracula, the Hungarian actor was admitted to Metropolitan State Hospital, formerly Norwalk State Hospital, for treatment of his morphine addiction. During his stay, the vampire read scripts. He would later star in B moviemaker Ed Wood’s science-fiction film Plan 9 from Outer Space
My father lived in a tract home next door to a Mexican family with five or so kids. One of the kids accidentally killed her sister by sticking her fingers in the baby’s fontanel.
Can you imagine?
The oldest boy in the family was named Zippy. Zippy was bright and gangly and mostly wore shorts and T-shirts. He invented a game. By Orr and Day Road grew a eucalyptus tree whose trunk could hide several boys. Zippy and his friends would cluster behind it and wait. Neighborhood kids would come out to watch.
My father hid behind a juniper with other little observers.
They were tense with excitement.
A Buick began making its way through the intersection.
Zippy released the tricycle. It sped into the street. A realistic child mannequin wearing overalls was loosely tied to its handlebars, and the Buick collided with it, loosening the rope and sending the “child” sailing through the air. When the mannequin hit the asphalt, its limbs contorted. Its head rolled off.
“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!” screamed the old white lady who’d left her Buick running in the middle of the intersection. She ran in zigzags with her hands on her head.
“I killed him! I killed him! I killed him!” she shrieked. “I killed the baby!”
A curbside bush filled with children shook with laughter.
When my father took us to Norwalk to visit my uncle Henry, we would drive through Zippy’s intersection. I half expected to see his tricycle and mannequin roll into the street until I remembered that Zippy was now an adult and that Zippy was in prison. I never met Zippy. I knew him only as a character from Dad’s Norwalk stories. When telling Zippy tales, my father would insist that the stuff his neighbor had done was terrible, just sadistic, except Dad didn’t look or sound horrified. The corners of his lips turned up and I could hear nostalgia. His voice told on him. He recalled those death games fondly.
My father was four years old when he left Mexico and arrived in California. It was 1951. That same year, Excélsior
, a Mexico City newspaper, published this headline: WHILE PLAYING WAR THREE LITTLE BOYS “EXECUTED” A MAID BY FIRING SQUAD
Beneath the headline appeared three candid photos of three big-eared kids, Carlos and Raúl Salinas, ages four and five, and Gustavo Rodolfo Zapata, age eight. According to the article, the trio was in police custody but didn’t understand why.
The shooting had happened the day before, December 17, around noon, at 425 Palenque, the mansion where brothers Carlos and Raúl shared a bedroom. Their mother, Mrs. Margarita de Gortari de Salinas, had gone shopping at around eleven o’clock. Her sons and their friend were left in the care of two staff members. One was the cook, María Torres Garrido. The other was Manuela, a twelve-year-old Indigenous girl from San Pedro Azcapotzaltongo. María usually kept an eye on Manuela. The girl had been working at 425 Palenque for a month and a half.
When Margarita returned home an hour and a half later, she was met by police, who told her what her children had done. Margarita told them that the boys must’ve found the loaded rifle that her husband, the economist Raúl Salinas Lozano, kept hidden in a closet. Pretending to be at war, the boys had needed a weapon and an enemy. They’d cast Manuela in that role when they came upon her sweeping.
Aiming his father’s .22 at her face, Carlos fired.
Manuela and her broom fell.
María was the first to find her, and when she asked the boys what they’d done, they triumphantly chorused, “We have killed Manuela!”
Carlos squealed, “I killed her with one shot! I’m a hero!”
A reporter visited the boys and spoke with them. He wrote that they seemed slightly agitated but mostly calm. With their mother minding them, they sprinted up and down police corridors. She’d told them that while they were with the police, no more games. They’d played enough.
Four months before the murder at 425 Palenque, another killing had taken place at a rowdier address, 122 Monterrey.
On September 7, La Prensa
, another Mexico City newspaper, published this headline: HE WANTED TO DEMONSTRATE HIS MARKSMANSHIP AND KILLED HIS WIFE. CRIME COMMITTED BY AN AMERICAN DURING A SCANDALOUS SPREE
By the eighth, the news had reached the United States. HEIR’S PISTOL KILLS HIS WIFE; HE DENIES PLAYING WM. TELL
The accused was the broke-ish grandson of William Seward Burroughs, the bank clerk who invented the first commercially practical calculator. Unlike his grandfather, thirty-seven-year-old William Seward Burroughs II was an aspiring writer, gun enthusiast, narcotics connoisseur, and queer nihilist who had yet to do anything notable except father a child. An outlaw, he’d fled to Mexico City and was soon joined by his twenty-eight-year-old wife, Joan Vollmer, their son, William Seward Burroughs III, and Julie, a daughter from Joan’s second marriage.
William ended Joan’s life ten days before Mexican Independence Day.
It was storming. Black water flooded parts of Mexico City.
William had recently returned from a South American vision quest that would later be aestheticized in the novel Queer
. In need of cash, he made an appointment to sell one of his guns to a Mexico City College student, Robert Addison.
At the Bounty Bar and Grill, where William wrote parts of what would become Naked Lunch
, Joan bought a lime soft drink with a splash of gin. The dark green cocktail sloshed as she limped upstairs to John Healy’s apartment. John bartended downstairs and had met William through Spanish classes.
William carried his valise into the apartment. Joan brought her glass and cane. She sat on a stuffed living room chair across from Eddie Woods and Lewis Marker, William’s vision quest partner. Both were on the sofa. Both heard William say, “Put the glass on your head, Joanie! Let me show the boys what a great shot Bill is!”
I’ve listened to men explain what Joan felt in the seconds before her husband shot her. One of these explainers was Matt, someone I “dated” when I was fifteen. I met Matt at the Catholic Charities thrift store where he worked. He was a haggard twentysomething with a greasy pompadour and stringy sideburns. He played drums in a band and had written a novel in ink by longhand. He read Beat poets. He lectured me about things I already knew, like that Andy Warhol was a homosexual from Pittsburgh.
After taking me to eat dinner at a Chinese restaurant where fish swam laps in a long aquarium, Matt drove me to the house he shared with an alcoholic surfer, Corey.
“Sit,” he told me.
I sat on the living room couch and watched Matt stuff a video into the VCR’s rectangular mouth. Naked Lunch
The critic Gary Indiana describes this movie as “an amalgam of several Burroughs texts, not just Naked Lunch
.” The film also draws from the writer’s life but takes liberties with details. The actress Judy Davis plays Joan Vollmer, one of two female characters whose voices the audience gets to hear. The actor Peter Weller plays William Burroughs. We hear his voice a lot. In the scene inspired by the events that took place at 122 Monterrey, William Burroughs’s alter ego, Bill Lee, sits at a cluttered vanity table. Opening a drawer, he pulls out a sleek handgun.
He announces, “I guess it’s time for our William Tell routine.”
Facing the bedroom window, Joan turns around. Her blue dress hangs open and reveals a lacy white slip. She plucks an empty drinking glass from the cluttered dresser, sits on the windowsill, and balances it on her head. Bill smiles and cocks his pistol. He looks at Joan and takes aim. She returns a stoic stare.
Matt said, “See, Joan wasn’t scared. She trusted him.”
He squeezed my leg.
Was he going to ask me to balance something on my head?
In real life, Joan giggled after placing the glass on her head. Then she said, “I can’t watch this. You know I can’t stand the sight of blood.”
William took aim with his Star .38 and fired.
The glass hit the floor, rolling in circles.
Joan’s tired head slumped to one side.
William’s tiny audience thought Joan was kidding.
Finally, Lewis said, “I think you hit her.”
Everyone rushed to her.
When William noticed a small blue hole in Joan’s head, he screamed, “No!” He jumped into her lap and chanted, “Joan! Joan! Joan!”
Maybe he wanted to be consoled by her.
The living expect a lot from dead women.
After watching Naked Lunch
with Matt, I bought a copy of the book from the used bookstore.
I went through a whole bottle of Advil trying to finish it.
When I did, I was even more confused.
It wasn’t a novel.
It was chaos.
I didn’t admit that to anyone. Instead, I told people I loved it. I told people Uncle Bill was a genius. Brilliant. I pretended to get it. This impressed Matt’s friends. It made me likable.
During a press conference held to promote Naked Lunch
the movie, a reporter asked William Burroughs, “Do you regret the period in your life when you were addicted?”
He answered, “The point is a writer can profit by experiences which would not be advantageous or profitable to others. Because he’s a writer, he can write about it.”
William Burroughs could just as easily have been talking about shooting his wife in the head. That’s what people looked forward to seeing when they watched Naked Lunch
. That hole he made in her brain.
Courtney Love and Amy Adams have also played Joan Vollmer on-screen, but my favorite portrayal remains Judy Davis’s.
She brought something achingly queer to the role.
Watching her open her pink mouth and exhale onto the cockroaches climbing the wallpaper made girls like me swoon.
William Burroughs was held at Cellblock H of el Palacio de Lecumberri, a prison. He stayed for thirteen days, and after his release, he reunited with his brother, a snob named Mortimer. They decided that Julie and William Jr. would be sent to live with relatives. Arrangements for Joan’s burial at Panteón Americano were made.
In exchange for 320 pesos, she came to occupy grave 1018.
In 1952, William Burroughs returned to Texas.
In 1953, a Mexican judge found him guilty in absentia. Eduardo Urzaiz Jiménez ordered the gringo to serve two years in prison, but his sentence was suspended.
Ace Books published his first novel, Junky
, that same year.
It makes mention of his time in Mexico.
Six years later, Naked Lunch
made William Burroughs famous.
Joan Vollmer is still in Mexico. I imagine her grave is less visited than Frida Kahlo’s blue house.
I have looked for more information about Manuela, the girl killed during the war game. I can’t even locate her last name. Manuela is derived from Emmanuel, Greek for the Hebrew Imanu’el. The name means “God is with us.”
Would Joan Vollmer have been friends with me? Maybe.
Joan was a slut.
According to my middle school classmates, so was I.
Joan was raised somewhere with passionate seasons, Loudonville, New York. Her mother was named Dorothy, and her father and brother shared a name, David. David Sr., a chemist, worked at the Gevaert photographic film factory. Since it was owned by Germans, the federal government seized the factory during World War II and gave it to David Sr. to manage.
When Joan would step outside, David Sr. would follow her in his car. She got no privacy and dreamt of escaping to Manhattan. Until then she was stuck at Saint Agnes, an Episcopalian school. She listened to Beethoven and loved her hands. She thought they were her most beautiful feature, better than her legs. Her classmates voted her “Most Intellectual.” She wrote fancy essays for her French class.
The psyche of the Fascist ideology of the Nazis reveals itself in the music of Wagner. It’s not by chance that this music is Hitler’s favorite. When Hitler was rising to power/would be present, the orchestra played La Course des Valkyries. This music, with its almost hysteric heroism and its theatrical and pretentious grandeur, represents, in a symbolic way the spirit of the Fuehrer…
In her yearbook photo, Joan is a delicate Atlas, a pretty girl with the world on her mind. Her high cheekbones curve sharply. Her thin lips frown. The drape of her dress reveals a bit of back, her spine. Under her name appears a list of her accomplishments.
- Cum Laude
- Gold Medal
- Bleatings Board ’37, ’38, ’39
- Silver Cross and Bar ’36, ’37, ’38, ’39
- Secretary of Freshman Class
- Barnard College
After winning a three-hundred-dollar scholarship, Joan left to study journalism in New York. At seventeen, she married. She regretted the decision, dumped her husband, and got married again, this time to a Columbia law student. When she started to regret her second marriage, she got lucky. Her husband got drafted, and during his absence, Joan got pregnant with Julie.
Joan’s parents sent her an allowance. Combined with the military money she got from her second husband, she was able to subsidize a bohemian life at several New York addresses.
One was 420 West 119th Street.
Another was 419 West 115th Street.
The writer Joyce Johnson describes Joan’s Upper West Side homes as early prototypes of what a later generation would call “pads.” At Joan’s, an artist, intellectual, swindler, drifter, mystic, or whore could make herself at home. She could cry into the greasy sofa. She could annotate Marx in the bathtub. She could vomit in the closet. She could pluck her eyebrows until they were crooked. She could heave a sigh of relief when blood reddened her underwear. She could burn toast and eat it in bed.
Joan’s second husband divorced her.
Joan met Edie Parker, an art student, at the West End Bar. The girls became friends and Edie mentored Joan in the art of the blow job. Edie’s boyfriend Jack thought Joan might hit it off with his friend William, a Harvard graduate from St. Louis, Missouri, who was working as an exterminator in Chicago. Jack foretold an “affinity between Joan’s sharp, glittering wittiness,” and William’s cuntiness. When introduced, Joan matched the exterminator wit for wit.
“You’re supposed to be a faggot,” Joan told William. “But you’re as good as a pimp in bed.”
William moved into Joan’s and got his own room. Their sex didn’t always go as planned. Joan would burst into William’s room, ready for fun. The exterminator would cough up classic excuses. My foot hurts. I have a headache.
William fell in love with narcotics. He and Joan fooled around with inhalers, huffing Benzedrine. They experimented with amphetamine and caffeine and stayed up for two weeks.
Joan erupted in sores. She saw and heard things that only she could see and hear. She woke up in Bellevue’s mental ward and worked for a week and half to convince doctors that she was sane. Her dad came and got Julie. William came and got her.
Joan and William’s friends kept going to jail. Worried about what might happen to them, they plotted their escape from the city that Joan had once idealized.
Before leaving, the couple booked a room at a Times Square hotel.
After knocking her up, William took Joan west.
William sank family money into a broken-down ninety-nine-acre property north of Houston. Julie and William Jr. crawled the land. Neither William nor Joan was in any condition to maintain a ranch. They were addicts and the law kept buzzing around them.
They invited their friend Herbert to come down from New York and work as their farmhand. He became their courier, commuting back and forth between the farm and Houston, wrangling their supply of Benzedrine, marijuana, and liquor. Herbert noticed that Joan and William slept in separate rooms. He also noticed that William always seemed annoyed with Joan.
As Herbert, Joan, and William walked through the woods, Joan struggled to carry Julie. She asked, “Can you help me?”
William said nothing.
Herbert snapped, “Why don’t you fucking help her?”
William answered, “The Spartans knew how to manage the weight of female infants. They threw them from cliffs.”
William had planted marijuana. The crop turned out miserable. Finding someone to unload it on was challenging. William was relieved when a sucker finally came along.
He tried quitting narcotics and did for a short while, but in Beeville, police arrested him for having sex with Joan on the side of the road while the kids sat in the car. The whole family got locked up. Authorities revoked William’s driver’s license.
“May buy a house in New Orleans,” William wrote to a friend. “I must have someplace to stash the brats.”
In New Orleans, William left Joan at home with the kids. She knew it was a matter of time before he’d be arrested again, and when he was, the police raided their home, confiscating marijuana and guns. They threw William in jail.
After his release, William was admitted to the De Paul Sanitarium. A staff member interviewed Joan, asking her for her husband’s history. The interviewer jotted notes on Joan.
Patient’s wife appeared to be an attractive woman… She was expensively dressed… She was restless, spoke with a fixed, forced smile throughout the interview, smoked one cigarette after the other. She was admittedly “nervous,” ducked or raised her head to the ceiling when speaking, but seldom met interviewers’ eyes… There were several bruises on her arms for which she declined to give an explanation other than words to the effect that she “bruised easily.” On the surface she was friendly.
William signed himself out of De Paul and took the family back to Texas. He was nervous about appearing before a New Orleanian judge; he worried he’d be sentenced to Angola, a plantation turned prison.
William scouted for a place to live in Mexico.
Joan and the kids soon joined him in Colonia Roma, at 210 Orizaba.
In Mexico City, Joan consoled herself with tequila.
William spent their money on narcotics and men.
“I’m personally fine,” Joan wrote to a friend. “Although somewhat drunk from 8 a.m. on.”
William became a client of Lola la Chata, a chicharrón vendor turned narcotraficante. When Joan found William cooking at home, she grabbed his spoon and threw it in the toilet.
William smacked her. He smacked her again.
Joan wanted a divorce.
William took Lewis, a gringo he had a crush on, on a trip to Ecuador. They hunted for hallucinogens. William paid for everything. Meanwhile, Joan took the kids on a drunken road trip to my mother’s hometown, Guadalajara. On their way back, they stopped in Parangaricutirimícuaro, a town in Michoacán that really fills the mouth. They visited the volcano, Paricutín.
Days before climbing the stairs to 122 Monterrey, Joan met up with a friend.
Her skin was covered in sores. Her smile was missing half its teeth. Her scalp peeked through bald patches.
“I’m not going to make it,” she said.
Headlines play language games. The headline “Heir’s Pistol Kills Wife; He Denies Playing Wm. Tell” hides the murderer behind a gun, making it seem that a pistol, and not a man, did the dirty work. The headline “He Wanted to Demonstrate His Marksmanship and Killed His Wife. Crime Committed by an American During a Scandalous Spree” conjures playful intent. The American didn’t mean to kill his wife. He only meant to show off. If I could’ve written a headline for what happened that night, it would read “To Impress Two Men, One That He Was Sleeping with, Man Plays Russian Roulette with Head of Smart Wife Who Wanted Divorce.”
After school, Matt picked me up in his van. As I buckled my seat belt, he asked, “How’s it going?”
I took this as an invitation to tell him about my day, and I launched into a play-by-play, going period by period.
When I got to lunch, Matt interrupted me.
“Do you have to talk about high school so much?” he whined.
I turned to look at his twentysomething-year-old face. It was already pruning.
“Matt,” I answered, “I’m a sophomore.”
Matt was on his back. His Levis and boxer shorts were wrapped around his ankles.
It wasn’t a good look.
His penis had a troubling mole.
Fully dressed, I sat on the edge of the bed, trying to avoid his genitals. I didn’t want to take off my clothes. I was wearing too cute of an outfit. A black blouse with black butterflies under a black V-neck dress. Black-on-black striped stockings. Black pointy-toed shoes.
“Touch it,” Matt snapped.
I didn’t know what to do with it. I’d never interacted with one while sober and I had no desire to grip Matt’s little pink monster.
I shook my head.
“Touch it!” he repeated.
Matt exhaled through gritted teeth, sat up, and faced his nightstand. He pushed the pump on a bottle of lotion, squirting white goo into his palm. Then he lunged, grabbed my hand, slathered it, and jerked it onto his penis. While Matt moved my hand up and down, I stared at a Gauguin postcard tacked to the wall. I focused on the faces of Tahitian women.
Matt told me that we were dating but not girlfriend and boyfriend.
I told people he was my boyfriend anyways.
After Matt, I dated a woman who later became my wife. I didn’t have another boyfriend until I was in my thirties. That guy tricked me into playing William Tell–ish games with him, hazing me into them with an innocuous instruction: “Toss me my boots.” He’d left them by the futon, and I lifted them off the tile floor by the heels, gingerly lobbing them in his direction. As the boots landed near his feet, he looked at me with theatrical disgust.
“Babe,” he said. “That’s not a throw. I want you to throw
them at me. Throw them as hard as you can.”
My boyfriend’s instructions confused me.
“Because. Because I want to see how well you can throw. I want to see how much power you have.”
I shrugged and said, “I can’t throw that hard. I have, like, no power in my arms. They’re noodles.” “Try.”
I sighed, walked to his boots, picked them up, and carried them back to the futon. He stood arms akimbo by the kitchen table. “Ready,” he said.
I pretended to wind up a pitch and then chucked his shoes as gingerly as I’d tossed them the first time. They landed with a gentle clatter.
He shook his head.
“You didn’t follow instructions. I’m going to have to teach you how to throw. Go stand against the wall.”
He’d already critiqued and corrected my running style, but I felt anxious about having to stand against the wall for this new lesson. It had a firing squad feeling.
“Keep your arms down. Don’t move. I want you to feel a good pitch. I want you to feel it in your body.”
I was about to answer that I didn’t want to feel a good pitch, but the shoes were already hurtling at my head.
I ducked and ka-pow; they smacked the wall, leaving a gray mark.
“We’re gonna have to do it again.”
“Because you moved!”
We repeated the game until I didn’t flinch. One boot nailed me in the tit, causing searing pain—tits are the testicles of the chest—but I did as I was told because I was scared. I obeyed my boyfriend because I didn’t trust him.
William got used to hurting Joan. Joan thought she’d gotten used to it but hadn’t.
She wanted a divorce. William gave her a permanent one.
I hope people bring her flowers in Mexico City.
She deserves them.
So does Manuela.
In 1986, when I was nine, I learned about a man who claimed to have killed a girl by accident.
Her story was on the news a lot.
The victim was eighteen-year-old Jennifer Levin.
A cyclist was taking her usual morning bike ride through Central Park when she spotted Jennifer’s half-dressed remains behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She found a pay phone, dialed 911, and reported the body. Police gathered around it and gawked. One found her underwear about fifty feet away. Someone had cut, bruised, and bitten Jennifer. They had also twisted her bra around her neck. A medical examiner determined that she’d been strangled.
The last person Jennifer was seen with was twenty-year-old Robert Chambers.
Robert told the police that Jennifer had made him go to the park and made him participate in what sounded like a sex game. He said that Jennifer got aggressive, that she overwhelmed him. He couldn’t take it, and once he managed to get one of his hands free, he sat up, grabbed her neck as hard as he could, and flipped her over. She landed next to a tree and didn’t move.
I didn’t know what rough sex games were, but I was pretty sure that Robert Chambers was lying. Others believed him. Why would somebody with such a patrician jawline lie?
I spent part of the summer that Jennifer Levin was murdered at my grandparents’ house.
They lived in Guadalajara and all of Mexico was vibrating with enthusiasm. The epicenter of this excitement was Azteca Stadium in Mexico City. The country had been chosen to host the World Cup and it was here. It was happening. Walking through Guadalajara with my grandmother, we saw soccer posters pasted against cemetery walls and TVs broadcasting games in butcher shop windows. Peddlers sold every conceivable form of soccer merchandise on street corners, at tianguis, and in the sharp shadow of the cathedral. Men in cowboy boots shrieked and danced in place when their teams won, and men in cowboy boots wailed and sank to their knees when their teams lost. During the World Cup, Mexican masculinity seemed dynamic. Nuanced. Expansive.
To get into the spirit, I wore soccer cleats as everyday shoes and clacked across my grandparents’ tile floor, unable to sneak up on anyone. My footwear led my uncle Álvaro to believe that I was a big soccer fan (I wasn’t; I preferred kickball), and he came home one day with a white plastic bag that he handed me. I pulled out a commemorative World Cup doll, a mustached jalapeño wearing a straw sombrero and red soccer jersey. The mascot’s name was el Pique, and at night, I cuddled with my vegetable, clutching him to my chest. After caressing his facial hair, I pressed my fingertips into his green skin to feel what he was stuffed with. Beans. Maybe beads. Oddly, he smelled of incense. Had he been blessed at church?
When Argentina played England in the quarterfinals, Argentine player Diego Maradona scored a legendary first goal by punching the ball with his left hand. Despite this illegal touch, referee Ali Bennaceur awarded it. After the match, journalists probed Maradona, trying to get him to confess to how he’d scored that first goal.
“A little with the head of Maradona,” he replied, “and a little with Hand of God.”
I watched a crowd watch this historic game at my grandparents’ house. One of my uncles had invited some of his guy friends and a woman who’d been introduced to me as Lola, his secretary. While the men crowded around the TV, drinking beer, whistling, clapping, and smoking cigarettes, my uncle placed his hand on his secretary’s hip. The hand moved, sliding between Lola’s legs. I was intrigued by this touching. My uncle had a wife and Maradona had given him a great alibi.
“It wasn’t me,” I imagined him sputtering to my aunt. “It was the Hand of God!”
My grandfather wasn’t around that day. He’d become a busy man. Earlier that year, one of his former classmates, the celebrated writer Juan Rulfo, had died, and my grandfather was now on a mission to establish himself as a premier Rulfista, an expert on his departed friend’s life and oeuvre. In his essay “The Persona of Rulfo,” the writer Antonio Alatorre illustrates how my grandfather resolved unknowns about the acclaimed but enigmatic Rulfo.
Juan had engineered his life story to create a two-year hole, a perfectly empty space, a zero. The truth about those two years came to light some days after Rulfo’s death thanks to Ricardo Serrano, one of his classmates, who published the piece “The Seminarian Rulfo” in the January 29, 1986, edition of Excélsior
. The article was illustrated by various photographs, one of them a group of seminarians. In it, both men appear looking very serious. If you haven’t heard of Serrano’s essay, it wouldn’t surprise me. Nobody is obligated to know everything. A newspaper article, by definition, is ephemeral anyway. I learned about the essay by Serrano nearly two years after it was published because he gave me a photocopy of it.
My grandfather loved newspapers.
He especially loved those with his name printed in them and kept a stash of those in a special room.
At the time of Rulfo’s death, Miguel de la Madrid governed Mexico. Carlos Salinas de Gortari, de la Madrid’s minister of planning and budget, succeeded him. It is widely believed that President Salinas came to power through electoral fraud, and his family certainly had a lot of practice shaping fate, forcing it to do their bidding. President Salinas was the same little boy who shot Manuela while playing a war game, and though he’d confessed to the killing, evidence of the murder had largely disappeared. Newspapers memorializing the murder had vanished from libraries.
The censors working on behalf of the Salinas family did a pretty good job of rewriting history, but they failed at purging the truth completely. A few old newspapers resurfaced, and there he was, big-eared, goofy, and four years old, proudly shouting, “I killed her with one shot! I’m a hero!”
President Salinas has been able to hide a lot. It’s never been proven that he rigged the 1988 election; the ballots were burned. It’s never been proven that he had anything to do with the assassination of his successor, Luis Donaldo Colosio, who was shot point-blank in the back of the head as he moved through a crowd during a campaign rally in Tijuana. It’s never been proven that Carlos had anything to do with the assassination of Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu, his brother-in-law, whose neck was struck by machine gunfire as he was leaving the White House Hotel. When authorities implicated the president’s older brother Raúl as the mastermind behind the Ruiz Massieu assassination, Carlos told the press, “I am completely convinced of his innocence!”
There are many things we’ll never know about Carlos Salinas de Gortari.
That he shot a girl when he was a child isn’t one of them.
The truth is in print, and some people, like my grandfather, hoard the printed word. They understand the power of ephemera.
, William Burroughs writes that “Mexico City is a terminal of space-time travel, a waiting room where you grab a quick drink while you wait for your train.”
I’ve experienced Mexico City this way and this way only.
When my aunt Nena, who was also my godmother, was dying, my mother and I rushed to the airport. We boarded a plane to Mexico with the hopes of being able to say goodbye to Nena while she could still hear us. My mother and I didn’t say so, but we were both worried that we wouldn’t make it in time.
I’d never rehearsed death with my godmother. We’d played zero morbid games together. Instead, Nena was someone who modeled confronting mortality for real. Muscular dystrophy took her youngest daughter, my cousin Pollito, and Nena took charge of Pollito’s legacy, writing and self-publishing a book about her. Nena became the boss at deathbeds and funerals, and she was so strong-willed that I couldn’t imagine anyone but her directing her funeral. I pictured her doing this from the comfort of her coffin, insisting on shutting the lid herself and smacking away anyone who tried to fix her hair.
Nena was the boss of my grandmother’s death. As her body had cooled, my godmother, my uncles, my parents, and my cousins gathered around the bed where our matriarch had stared at the ceiling for more than a decade. With a rosary threaded through her fingers, Nena muttered Hail Marys and Our Fathers. She aimed her face at the ceiling because beyond it was God, and she told the Almighty that it was time to receive her mother’s spirit. She explained to the divine what her mother had suffered on earth. She sounded angry about it. Addressing the sky, my godmother wailed. Her wails grew birdlike and took flight. We wailed with Nena. We’d wanted my grandmother to be free from pain, but now we were in pain. Spirit inhabited Nena’s wailing and ours. The spirit moved throughout the room, encouraging us to release our pain. An icon of la Virgen de Guadalupe, that hung from a nail a few feet above my grandmother’s bed, looked shyly away.
After the men from the mortuary wheeled my grandmother to a van, loaded her up, and drove off, Nena told me, “Get your purse. We have a lot to do.”
We drove to the busy flower shops by the cemetery and ordered several large arrangements. We drove to a women’s clothing store and chose a white dress for my grandmother to be buried in. We drove to the mortuary, where we handed documents, a crystal rosary, and the white dress to a funeral director. These mortal chores were a lesson. My godmother was showing me how much work death really is. Death doesn’t end with a gunshot. The bullet is a starting point, and there are many administrative steps that the living must complete before the deceased can heave a sigh of relief. The dead depend on us. Without us, they don’t sleep well.
To get to Nena, my mother and I had flown out of LA and touched down in Mexico City for a layover. We never left the airport. I wanted to but it wasn’t feasible. We didn’t have enough time to do anything but wait.
I tried to relax. Breathe stale airport air.
We bought coffee and sat at a bistro table.
I people watched.
My mother’s phone rang. She spoke little. Listened mostly. When her short conversation ended, she told me that her little sister had called. Not only was Nena gone, but my uncle had already cremated her. It bothered my mother a lot that Nena’s husband had turned her to ash so fast. My mother felt robbed of her sister’s body. It’s awkward to say goodbye to an urn. A face, even if its wrecked, is still a face.
It was pushing midnight when we arrived in Los Mochis. I’d never been, and I didn’t know anything about the city except that it was coastal, that my aunt had lived there, and that it was where police re-re-recaptured the famous narcotraficante Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, leader of the Sinaloa drug cartel and talented prison escapee.
At the Mochis airport, a driver met us and helped us with our bags. I felt like I was wearing a suit of filth. We drove through the darkest night and stopped at a restaurant. We dragged our suitcases inside and found Nena’s husband in a wood-paneled room with four tables arranged in a square. I recognized two cousins. The others were strangers.
“Well, well, well!” screamed my uncle. He looked ready to spit. “The Americans are here!”
My uncle and my mother have been feuding since they met. That happened the night that he took Nena on their first date, and my grandfather appointed my mother their chaperone. My mother ordered the most expensive dinner on the menu and made sure to get dessert.
After our rude welcoming, we went to my uncle’s house and slept for a few hours. When I woke up, my left eye was swollen. I don’t know why it chose to puff up. By breakfast, the swelling had subsided.
At the high-ceilinged church where we held Nena’s funeral, I kept expecting for my aunt to pop out from behind a religious statue and yell, “Surprise!” Instead, an urn held her ashes. It sat on a short table near the altar. From a framed portrait beside the urn, Nena’s brown eyes stared. Several flower bouquets surrounded her.
The church felt as stuffy as the airport. Most everything in it was off-white. My mother grabbed one of the fans tucked into the wooden slot attached to the pew in front of her, using it to cool herself. She looked elegant and so I snapped her picture. She smiled and tapped the fan against her chin.
Grandchildren and friends eulogized Nena. I didn’t speak. Had I spoken I would’ve rambled about four experiences. One, the time she took me ice-skating in a hotel shaped like an ancient pyramid. Two, the time we bumbled into a kidnapping in progress, and she got us away safely. Three, the time I went with her to a chiropractor and he grabbed her by the ears and adjusted her. I heard a cracking sound and thought he’d killed her. Four, my grandmother’s funeral, when Nena became the boss of death.
An archway beside the altar fed into an alcove. After the service, mariachis in skintight pants played their instruments and sang by this entrance. We sang with them. My cousin picked up the urn containing his mom and we paraded to the archway. The mariachis led us. We stepped inside a small mausoleum where music echoed off walls, vases, and bones.
Violins played as the priest opened a small door. That would be my aunt’s drawer for eternity. Another priest swung a censer back and forth. The smell of frankincense and myrrh filled the space. Smoke curled in ghostly shapes. The priest placed the urn inside and shut the door.
We dispersed, wandering into the church and then out into the sun. I had my suitcase with me. I had to leave Mexico fast. I was due in domestic violence court in California, supposed to testify at a hearing where I’d face the ex-boyfriend who’d used me for target practice, nailing me with shoes, books, bottles, you name it. I’d managed to leave him before he could give me archery lessons, and I was nauseous about having to see him again, make my case for a restraining order. Getting a man who resents you to leave you alone can be a lot of work. Almost as much work as dying.
I began asking funeral goers if they could shuttle me to the airport. An elderly couple agreed to. I rode through the emerald countryside with them, and when I got to the airport, I darted to my gate.
“Step aside,” said a guard.
Another guard took my suitcase and made a spectacle of unzipping it, rifling through my underwear, dresses, and books.
“Stand with your legs apart. Spread your arms.”
I held my breath as she frisked me.
Once the guards were done humiliating me, they let me proceed to my plane.
I’d been unable to get a direct flight to LA, so I landed in Tijuana. I figured I could walk back to the United States from there.
I took a taxi from the airport to the Otay Mesa Port of Entry. More than a million trucks cross through the port each year. I’d crossed it by station wagon, suburban, and van but never by foot. I wobbled in my clogs and dragged my pink suitcase along the stone path to the inspection station, bump thump, bump thump, bump thump, muddling past vendors selling balloons, gum, puppets, soccer balls, and salvation. At the inspection station, I showed an official my passport and placed my suitcase on a conveyor belt. An X-ray machine looked inside and spat it free. I retrieved it, wheeled it outside, took a deep breath, and walked for about a hundred feet.
I looked left.
I looked right.
Things seemed to be happening to the left.
I went left.
In a daze, I dragged my suitcase and stared at my phone, texting with a friend. I texted as I crossed a bridge. I texted as I walked down stairs. I texted as I pushed through a turnstile. I texted, heard traffic, and smelled mangos, diesel, and tar.
I stopped texting.
I looked up.
Waving at the top of a tall flagpole was a red, white, and green flag.
My eyes scanned the cityscape.
A uniformed woman holding a machine gun nodded at me.
I speed walked to the nearest building.
I approached the counter.
In Spanish, a young man wearing a vest said, “Hello. Welcome to Mexico!”
“I’m in Mexico?”
“But I just left!”
“I don’t understand. Did I just walk out of Mexico and accidentally… walk back in?”
He slowly nodded. Smiled.
My left eyelid twitched.
I turned and dragged my pink suitcase back outside, sprinting across what must have been twenty lanes of traffic. My armpits reeked of tabasco sauce. The pink dress I was wearing flapped in the light breeze stirred by passing cars.
At a broken sidewalk, I looked left. I looked right. Last time I chose left, I wound up in Mexico. I decided to go straight.
I focused all my mental energy on visualizing the path leading to the Otay Mesa Port of Entry, hoping that by willpower I could make it reappear. As I concentrated, I walked deep into the belly of a gray neighborhood without sidewalks. Some streets were paved. Others weren’t. I needed water badly. One stray dog after another followed me. Crows looked down from homemade roofs and laughed at me. I saw no other pedestrians. My arm burned from dragging my pink suitcase. I considered abandoning it. Maybe the dogs could use it.
Accepting that I was lost, I promised myself that I would not be like my father. I would ask the first person that I saw for directions back to the United States.
I spotted a man seated beneath an awning made of corrugated steel. Shade covered him. He wore a dingy pair of tight underwear. I felt sorry for his chair.
“Excuse me,” I said. “How do I get to the United States?”
The oracle hugged himself and laughed in a way that made me feel like maybe he was the wrong person to ask. Once he settled down, he said, “Not by going in the direction you’re headed.”
“Which way do I go?”
“Thank you,” I said.
I turned and walked in the direction that I’d come from, stray dogs scampering after me. I needed at least five tacos. And a 7UP. Nobody is going to believe me when I tell them
, I thought. Mexico wanted me to stay, but I couldn’t. I was due in domestic violence court.