Authors: Roberto Bolaño
The first to speak was Ernesto San Epifanio. He said that he didn't owe any debt to the King. He said that all he had done was to sleep with him two nights in a row (two wild nights, he specified), vaguely aware that he was going to bed with the King of the Rent Boys, but without measuring the dangers and "responsibilities" that such an act entailed, in all innocence (although as he said the word
Ernesto couldn't stifle a giggle, which was rather at odds with his self-exoneration), guided only by desire and a sense of adventure, and not by any secret plan of enslaving himself to the King of the Rent Boys.
You are my fucking slave, said the King, interrupting him. I am your fucking slave, said the man or the boy at the back of the room. He had a high-pitched, pained voice that gave me a start. The King turned around and ordered him to be quiet. I'm not your fucking slave, said Ernesto. The King looked at Ernesto with a patient, malicious smile. He asked him who he thought he was. A Mexican homosexual poet, said Ernesto, a homosexual poet, a poet, a . . . (all this meant nothing to the King), and then he added something about his right (his
right) to sleep with whoever he liked without having to become anybody's slave. This is crazy! If it wasn't so tragic I'd be killing myself, he said. Go ahead, then, before we get to work. The King's voice had suddenly gone hard. Ernesto blushed. I could see him in profile and I noticed that his lower lip was trembling. We're going to make you suffer, said the King. We're going to stick it to you, said the chancellor of the kingdom. We're going to beat you till your fucking lungs and heart explode, said the King. The strange thing, though, was that they said all this without moving their lips and without any sound coming out of their mouths.
Leave me alone, said Ernesto's etiolated voice.
The poor disabled boy at the back of the room started shaking and covered himself with a blanket. Soon we could all hear his stifled sobs.
Then Arturo spoke. Who's he? he asked.
Who's who, jerk? said the King. Who's that guy? said Arturo, pointing at the mass on the bed. The chancellor turned and looked inquisitively toward the back of the room, then looked at Arturo and Ernesto with an empty smile. The King did not turn around. Who is he? repeated Arturo. Who the fuck are
said the King.
The boy at the back of the room shuddered under the blanket. He seemed to be turning around. He was tangled up or suffocating, and you couldn't tell if his head was near the pillow or down at the foot of the bed. He's sick, said Arturo. It wasn't a question, or even an affirmation. It was as if he were talking to himself, and, at the same time, losing his nerve, and weirdly, at that moment, when I heard him speak, instead of thinking about what he had said or about that poor sick boy, I noticed that Arturo's Chilean accent had returned during the months he had spent in his country (and he still hadn't lost it). Which made me wonder what would happen in the unlikely event that I went back to Montevideo. Would my accent come back? Would I gradually cease to be the mother of Mexican poetry? It was typical: for some reason, I always have absurd, outlandish thoughts at the worst moments.
And that was definitely one of the worst; it even occurred to me that the King could kill us with impunity, and throw our bodies to the dogs, the silent dogs of Colonia Guerrero, or do something worse still. But then Arturo cleared his throat (or that is what it sounded like to me), sat down on an empty chair in front of the King (a chair that hadn't been there before) and covered his face with his hands (as if he were dizzy or thought he might faint). The King and the chancellor of the kingdom looked at him curiously, as if they had never seen such a listless hit man in their lives. Then, with his face still in his hands, Arturo said that they had to sort out Ernesto San Epifanio's problems once and for all, then and there. The curious expression drained from the King's face, as curious expressions do: they are always on the point of morphing into something else. They drain away, but not entirely; traces remain, because curiosity is lasting, and although the voyage from indifference to curiosity can seem brief (because we are drawn on by a natural inclination) the return can feel interminable, like an unending nightmare. And it was clear from the King's gaze that he would have liked to escape from that nightmare through violence.
But then Arturo began to speak of other things. He spoke of the sick boy who was shivering on the bed at the back of the room, and said that we were going to take him with us. He spoke of death, and he spoke of the shivering boy, who had in fact stopped shivering by then and pulled back the edge of the blanket to peep out at us. He spoke of death, and repeated himself over and over, always going back to death, as if telling the King of the Rent Boys in Colonia Guerrero that he had no competency in matters of death, and at the time I thought: He's making this up, it's fiction, a story, none of this is true, and then, as if Arturo Belano had read my thoughts, he turned just a little, barely moving his shoulders, said, Give it to me, and held out the palm of his right hand.
And on the palm of his right hand I placed my open jackknife, and he said thank you and turned his back on me again. The King asked him if he'd been hitting the bottle. No, said Arturo, well maybe, but only a bit. Then the King asked him if Ernesto was his boy. And Arturo said yes, which proved that I was right: it was the storyteller talking, not the booze. Then the King went to get up, perhaps to bid us good night and show us the door, but Arturo said, Don't move, you son of a bitch, no one moves, you sit still and you keep your fucking hands on the table, and, surprisingly, the King and the chancellor did as he said. I think at that point Arturo realized that he had won, or at least won the first half of the fight, or the first round, but he must have also realized that if the fight went on he could still lose. In other words, if this was a two-round fight, he had a good chance, but if the fight went to ten, or twelve, or fifteen rounds, his chances would be dwarfed by the immensity of the kingdom. So he went right ahead and told Ernesto to go and see how the boy at the back of the room was doing. And Ernesto looked at him as if to say, Come on, buddy, don't push it, but since it wasn't the moment for equivocation, he obeyed. From the back of the room Ernesto said that the kid was pretty far gone. I saw Ernesto. I saw him walk across the royal bedchamber, tracing an arc, until he reached the bed, where he uncovered the young slave and touched him, or perhaps gave him a pinch on the arm, whispered some words in his ear, put his own ear to the boy's lips, swallowed (I saw him swallow his saliva as he leaned across that swamp-like, desert-like bed), and said that the kid was pretty far gone. If this kid dies on us, I'm coming back to kill you, said Arturo. Then I opened my mouth for the first time that night: Are we going to take him with us, I asked. He's coming with us, said Arturo. And Ernesto, who was still at the back of the room, sat down on the bed, as if suddenly overcome by despondency, and said, Come and have a look yourself, Arturo. And I saw Arturo shake his head a number of times. He didn't want to see for himself. Then I looked at Ernesto and for a moment it seemed to me that the back of the room was sailing away from the rest of the building, with the bed as its taut sail, pulling away from the Clover Hotel, gliding off over a lake that was sailing in turn through a clear, clear sky, a sky from one of Dr. Atl's paintings of the valley of Mexico. The vision was so clear, all it needed was for Arturo and me to stand up and wave goodbye. And Ernesto seemed braver than ever to me. And the sick boy seemed brave too, in his way.
I moved. First mentally. Then physically. The sick boy looked me in the eyes and started to cry. He really was in a terrible state, but I thought it better not to tell Arturo. Where are his pants? Arturo asked. Somewhere around, said the King. I looked under the bed. There was nothing. I looked on both sides. I looked at Arturo as if to say, I can't find them, what should we do? Then Ernesto thought of looking among the blankets and he pulled out a pair of pants that looked damp and a pair of good tennis shoes. Leave it to me, I said. I sat the boy up on the edge of the bed and put on his jeans and his shoes. Then I lifted him up to see if he could walk. He could. Let's go, I said. Arturo didn't move. Wake up, Arturo, I thought. I have one more story to tell His Majesty, he said. You get going and wait for me at the front door.
Ernesto and I got the boy down the stairs. We hailed a taxi and waited at the entrance to the Clover Hotel. Shortly afterward, Arturo emerged. My recollections of that night when anything could have happened, but nothing did, are fragmentary, as if mauled by an enormous animal. Sometimes, thinking back, I can see a big thunderstorm moving in from the north toward the center of Mexico City, but my memory tells me that there was no thunderstorm that night, although the high Mexican sky did descend a little, and at times it was hard to breathe; the air was dry and it caught in the throat. I remember Ernesto San Epifanio and Arturo Belano laughing in the taxi, laughing their way back to reality or what they liked to think of as reality, and I remember the air as we stood on the sidewalk in front of the hotel and then inside the taxi, a cactus air, bristling with every one of Mexico's countless species of cactus, and I remember saying, It's hard to breathe, and, Give me back my knife, and, It's hard to talk, and, Where are we going. I remember that every time I spoke, Ernesto and Arturo burst out laughing, and I ended up laughing too, as much as them or more, we all laughed, all except the taxi driver, who at one point looked at us as if we were just like all the other clients he had picked up that night (which, given that this was Mexico City, would not have been at all unusual), and the sick boy, who had fallen asleep with his head on my shoulder.
And that was how we entered and left the kingdom of the King of the Rent Boys, an enclave in the wasteland of Colonia Guerrero, Ernesto San Epifanio, aged twenty or nineteen, a homosexual poet born in Mexico (and one of the two best poets of his generation, the other being Ulises Lima, who we didn't know at that stage), Arturo Belano, aged twenty, a heterosexual poet born in Chile, Juan de Dios Montes (also known as Juan de Dos Montes and Juan Dedos), aged eighteen, apprenticed to a baker in Colonia Buenavista, apparently bisexual, and myself, Auxilio Lacouture, of definitively indefinite age, reader and mother, born in Uruguay or the Eastern Republic, if you prefer, and witness to the intricate conduits of dryness.
And since I shall have no more to say about Juan de Dios Montes, I can at least tell you that his nightmare came to a good end. For a few days he lived at Arturito's place, then he drifted from one rooftop room to another. In the end a group of us found him a job at a bakery in Colonia Roma and he disappeared from our lives, or so it seemed. He liked to get high sniffing glue. He was melancholic and glum. He was stoic.
One day I ran into him by chance in the Parque Hundido. I said, How are you, Juan de Dios. Real good, he answered. Months later, at the party that Ernesto threw when he was awarded the Salvador Novo fellowship (Arturo wasn't there—they had fallen out, as poets do), I said that on the night of our adventure (it already seemed so long ago), the life in danger hadn't been his, as we had all thought, but Juan's. Yes, said Ernesto, that's the conclusion I've come to as well. It was Juan de Dios who was going to die.
Our hidden purpose had been to stop him from being killed.
fter that I came back to the world. I've had it with adventures, I said in a tiny little voice. Adventures, adventures. I had known the adventures of poetry, which are always matters of life and death, but when I came back to the streets of Mexico, I was content with everyday life. Why ask for more? Why go on fooling myself? The everyday is like a frozen transparency that lasts only a few seconds. So I came back and saw it and let it envelop me. I am the mother, I told it, and honestly I don't think I'm cut out for horror movies. Then the everyday began to expand like a soap bubble gone crazy, and popped.
I was back in the women's bathroom on the fourth floor of the Faculty of Philosophy and Literature and it was September 1968 and I was thinking about the adventures of Remedios Varo. There are so few people left who remember Remedios Varo. I never met her. I would sincerely love to be able to say that I'd met her, but the truth is that I never did. I have known marvelous women, strong as mountains or ocean currents, but I never met Remedios Varo. Not because I was too timid to pay her a visit at her house, not because I didn't admire her work (which I admire wholeheartedly), but because Remedios Varo died in 1963, and in 1963 I was still living in my beloved, faraway Montevideo.
Although some nights, when the moon shines into the women's bathroom and I am still awake, I think, No, in 1963, I was already in Mexico City and Don Pedro Garfias is listening distractedly as I ask him for Remedios Varo's address. Although the Catalan painter is not a particular friend of his, he knows and respects her, so he walks somewhat unsteadily to his desk, takes a slip of paper, a diary from a drawer, a fountain pen from his jacket pocket, and ceremoniously copies out the address in his beautiful handwriting.
So off I go flying to Remedios Varo's house, which is in Colonia Polanco, isn't it? Or Colonia Anzures, perhaps, or Colonia Tlaxpana? Memory plays malicious tricks on me when the light of the waning moon creeps into the women's bathroom like a spider. In any case, I rush headlong through the streets of Mexico City, which flash past, changing as I approach her house (each change building on the one that went before, each a sequel and a reproach), until I reach a street where all the houses seem to be ruined castles, and then I ring a doorbell and wait a few seconds, during which all I can hear is my heart beating (because I'm silly like that—when I'm about to meet someone I admire, my heart starts racing) and then I hear faint steps and someone opens the door and it is Remedios Varo.
She is fifty-four years old. Which means that she has a year left to live.