Authors: Roberto Bolaño
It also has to be said that, deep down, they remained somewhat skeptical. I mean I was the source of the legend; they heard it from my mouth, from my lips hidden by the back of my hand, so although everything I had said about him while he was shut up in his apartment was essentially true, the story wasn't altogether credible, simply because of its source; that is, me. That's how it is on this continent. I was the mother and they believed me, but they didn't believe
word I said. Except for Ernesto San Epifanio. During the days leading up to Arturo's public reappearance, Ernesto made me tell and retell the story of our friend's adventures at the ends of the earth, and with each repetition, he became more enthusiastic. What I mean is that as I talked and invented adventures, Ernesto San Epifanio's lethargy gradually fell away, and his melancholy too, or at least his lethargy and his melancholy stirred, shook themselves and began to breathe again. So when Arturo reappeared and everyone wanted to be with him, Ernesto San Epifanio was present along with the others, and took part, albeit in a self-effacing way, in the welcome that Arturo's old friends organized for him, which consisted, if I remember rightly, of standing him a beer and a serving of
at the Café Quito, a modest repast by any standard, but well matched to the economic resources at the group's disposal. And when they all went home, Ernesto San Epifanio remained, leaning against the bar of the Encrucijada Veracruzana, since by then we had moved on from the Quito, while Arturo sat alone at a table, accompanied only by his ghosts, staring at his last tequila as if a shipwreck of Homeric proportions were occurring in the bottom of the glass, which was, you have to admit, strange behavior for a kid his age, not quite twenty-one.
Then the adventure began.
I saw it. I can testify. I was sitting at another table, talking to a rookie journalist who wrote for the culture pages of a Mexico City newspaper, and I had just bought a drawing from Lilian Serpas, who, after making the sale, had smiled her most enigmatic smile (though the word
cannot even adumbrate that abyss of darkness) and disappeared into the night, and I was telling the journalist who Lilian Serpas was; I was telling him that the drawing was the work of her son; I was telling him the little I knew about that woman who used to make fleeting appearances in the bars and cafés along the Avenida Bucareli. And then, as I was talking, as Arturo contemplated putative whirpools in his tequila at the next table, Ernesto San Epifanio walked across from the bar and sat down next to him, and for a moment I could see only their heads, their mops of shoulder-length hair (Arturo's was curly while Ernesto's was straight and much darker), and they talked for a while as the last night owls gradually vacated the Encrucidada Veracruzana, some suddenly in a hurry to be gone, shouting, Viva Mexico! from the doorway, and some so drunk they could hardly get up out of their seats.
Then I got up and went and stood beside them like the crystal statue I wanted to be when I was a girl, and I listened as Ernesto San Epifanio told a terrible story about the King of the Rent Boys in Colonia Guerrero, a guy known as the King, who had a monopoly on male prostitution in that picturesque and indeed charming neighborhood of the capital. The King had bought Ernesto's body, which meant, so our friend told us, that he now belonged to that monarch body and soul (which is what happens if you're reckless enough to let yourself be bought), and if he did not accede to his new owner's demands, the judgment and the wrath of the King would fall upon him and upon his family. Arturito listened to what Ernesto was telling him, and from time to time he lifted his head from the maelstrom of his tequila and looked into his friend's eyes as if wondering how Ernesto could have made such a dumb mistake, how he could have got himself into that mess. And as if Ernesto had read his mind, he said there comes a time in the life of every gay man in Mexico when he goes and makes an irredeemably dumb-ass mistake, and then he said that he had no one to help him, and that if things went on the way they were going he'd end up being a slave to the King of the Rent Boys in Colonia Guerrero. Then Arturito, the kid I had met when he was seventeen, said, And you want me to help you get out of this fucking mess? And Ernesto San Epifanio said, There's no fucking way out of it, but I wouldn't say no to some help. And Arturo said, What do you want me to do? Kill the King of the Rent Boys? And Ernesto San Epifanio said, I don't want you to kill anyone, I just want you to come with me and tell him to leave me alone, for good. And Arturo said, Why the fuck don't you tell him yourself? And Ernesto said, If I go on my own and tell him, all the King's heavies will beat me to a pulp and throw my body to the dogs. And Arturo said, What a fuck-up. And Ernesto San Epifanio said, But nobody fucks with you. And Arturo said, Don't fucking push it. And Ernesto said, Well I'm fucked already, my poems will go down in the martyrology of Mexican poetry. If you don't want to come with me, fine. In the end, you're right. Right about what? said Arturo, stretching as if he'd been asleep until that moment. Then they started talking about the power wielded by the King of the Rent Boys in Colonia Guerrero and Arturo asked what that power was based on. Fear, said Ernesto San Epifanio. The King ruled by fear. And what am I supposed to do? asked Arturo. You're not afraid, said Ernesto. You've just come back from Chile. Whatever the King can do to me, you've seen it multiplied a hundred times or a hundred thousand. I couldn't see Arturo's reaction but I guessed that the slightly vacant expression on his face until then was subtly unsettled by a small, almost imperceptible wrinkle, in which all the world's fear was concentrated. Then Arturito laughed and Ernesto laughed and in the ashen space of the Encrucijada Veracruzana at that late hour their crystalline peals of laughter were like polymorphic birds. Then Arturo got up and said, Let's go to Colonia Guerrero, and Ernesto got up and went out with him, and thirty seconds later I too deserted that moribund bar and followed them at a careful distance, because I knew that if they saw me, they wouldn't let me come along, because I was a woman and they were on men's business, because I was older and didn't have the vigor of a twenty-year-old, and because at that uncertain hour before dawn Arturito Belano was assuming his destiny as a child of the sewers and setting out to confront his ghosts.
But I didn't want to let him go on his own. Him or Ernesto San Epifanio. So I followed at a careful distance, and as I walked I felt in my bag or my old satchel from Oaxaca, looking for my lucky knife, and this time I found it straight away, and put it in a pocket of my pleated skirt, a grey pleated skirt it was, with pockets on both sides, a gift from Elena, which I rarely wore. And right then I didn't think about what I was doing and the consequences it could have for me or for the others who would no doubt be affected. I thought of Ernesto, who was wearing a lilac-colored jacket and a dark green shirt with stiff collar and cuffs, and I thought about the consequences of desire. And then I thought of Arturo, who had suddenly been promoted to the rank of revolutionary veteran and had, for some obscure reason best known to himself, accepted the responsibilities entailed by that error.
I followed them: I saw them go down Bucareli to Reforma with a spring in their step and then cross Reforma without waiting for the lights to change, their long hair blowing in the excess wind that funnels down Reforma at that hour of the night, turning it into a transparent tube or an elongated lung exhaling the city's imaginary breath. Then we walked down the Avenida Guerrero; they weren't stepping so lightly any more, and I wasn't feeling too enthusiastic either. Guerrero, at that time of night, is more like a cemetery than an avenue, not a cemetery in 1974 or in 1968, or 1975, but a cemetery in the year 2666, a forgotten cemetery under the eyelid of a corpse or an unborn child, bathed in the dispassionate fluids of an eye that tried so hard to forget one particular thing that it ended up forgetting everything else.
And by that stage we had already crossed the Puente de Alvarado and glimpsed the last human ants making their way across the Plaza San Fernando under cover of darkness, and I began to feel seriously nervous because from that moment on we were venturing into the kingdom of the King of the Rent Boys, who had inspired such fear in the elegant Ernesto (a son of Mexico City's long-suffering working class, incidentally).
o there she was, my friends, the mother of Mexican poetry with a knife in her pocket, following two poets who still hadn't turned twenty-one down that turbulent river that was and is the Avenida Guerrero, comparable if not to the Amazon, for that would be an exaggeration, at least to the Grijalva, once honored by the song of Efraín Huerta (if I remember rightly), although the nocturnal Grijalva that is and was the Avenida Guerrero had long since lost its condition of original innocence, by which I mean that the urban version of the Grijalva, flowing in the night, was in every respect a damned river, a river of the damned, ferrying corpses and corpses-to-be, black automobiles that appeared, vanished, and then reappeared, the same ones or their silent, demented echoes, as if the river of Hell were circular, which, now I come to think of it, is probably the case.
Be that as it may, I followed them as they proceeded along the Avenida Guerrero and then turned down the Calle Magnolia, and to judge from their gestures they were having an animated conversation, although it was hardly the ideal time or place to engage in an exchange of views. From the bars still open on the Calle Magnolia (of which, admittedly, there were few) a wan tropical music emanated, more conducive to meditation than to festivity or dancing, punctuated from time to time by a resounding shout. I remember thinking that the street seemed to be a thorn or an arrow lodged in the side of the Avenida Guerrero, an image that Ernesto San Epifanio might have appreciated. Then they stopped in front of the Clover Hotel with its neon sign, which was funny, in a way, since it was like finding an establishment by the name of Paris in the Calle Berlin, or so it struck me at least (I was very nervous), and they seemed to be deliberating over what strategy to follow from that point on. I had the impression that, at the last minute, Ernesto wanted to turn around and get out of there as fast as possible, while Arturito was resolved to continue, having entirely assumed the role of hard man, which was partly my creation, and which, in the course of that helpless, airless night, he had accepted like a wafer of bitter flesh, the host that no one can be qualified to swallow.
Our two heroes went into the Clover Hotel: first Arturo Belano, followed by Ernesto San Epifanio, poets forged in the smithy of Mexico City, and then I, León Felipe's cleaning lady, breaker of Don Pedro Garfias's vases, the only person who remained in the UNAM in September 1968, when the riot police violated the autonomy of the university, I went in after them. And at first glance the interior of the hotel was a disappointment to me. At such moments you feel as if you were shutting your eyes and throwing yourself into a swimming pool of fire. I threw myself in. I opened my eyes. And there was nothing terrible about what I saw. A tiny lobby with two sofas unspeakably scarred by the passage of time, a short, swarthy man at the desk, with an enormous mass of jet-black hair, a fluorescent tube hanging from the ceiling, a green-tiled floor, a staircase covered with a dirty grey plastic runner, in short, a no-star lobby, although, for some of Colonia Guerrero's inhabitants, the Clover would perhaps have seemed a rather luxurious hotel.
After exchanging a few words with the receptionist, Arturo and Ernesto went up the stairs, then I came in and said that I was with them. The swarthy guy blinked. He was going to say something; he was going to play the guard dog, but I was already on the next floor, walking down a corridor bathed in sickly light, redolent of disinfectant and absolutely unadorned, as if its nakedness dated back to the first days of creation. I opened a door that had just been closed and stepped into my role as witness in the royal bed-chamber of the King of the Rent Boys in Colonia Guerrero.
I hardly need tell you, my friends, that the King was not alone.
In the room was a table, and on the table was a green cloth, but the occupants of the room were not playing cards; they were settling the day's or the week's accounts, and spread out on the green cloth were papers with names and numbers written on them, and money.
No one was surprised to see me.
The King was solidly built and he must have been about thirty years old. He had brown hair, that shade of brown that in Mexico they call
whether seriously or as a joke I've never been able to tell, and I guess I never will. He was wearing a slightly sweaty white shirt, which revealed, for all to see, a pair of muscular, hairy forearms. Next to him was sitting a chubby guy with a mustache and outsize sideburns, probably the chancellor of the kingdom. At the back of the room, on a bed in the shadows, a third man was watching and listening to us, moving his head. My first thought was that he was ill. At the start, he was the only one who frightened me, but as the minutes went by my fear gave way to pity: I realized that the man on the bed, in that semi-prostrate position (which can't have been easy to maintain), must have been an invalid, or maybe disabled, maybe the King's disabled or sedated nephew, which led me to reflect that however bad one's situation (I was thinking of Ernesto San Epifanio), there's always somebody worse off.
I remember the King's words. I remember his smile when he saw Ernesto and his inquisitive look when he saw Arturo. I remember how the King set a distance between his person and his visitors simply by gathering up the money and putting it into his pocket.
The King mentioned two nights during which Ernesto had willingly given himself and spoke of contracting obligations, the obligations implicit in every act, however gratuitous or accidental. He spoke of the heart, a man's heart, which bleeds like a woman (I think he was referring to menstruation) and obliges a real man to take responsibility for his acts, whatever they might be. And he spoke of debts: there was nothing more despicable than a badly paid debt. That's what he said. Not an unpaid debt but a badly paid debt. Then he stopped talking and waited to hear what his visitors had to say.