from No Man’s Land
THIS LIFE MAKES ME SICK, SOTO MUTTERED, and let his body collapse into the chair, his flesh quivering, feeling how his weight caused his vertebrae to crush his discs so flat that they groaned. He lit a cigarette and noticed that his hands were no longer shaking. However, he still had sweat on his palms and between his fingers no matter how many times he rubbed them on his jacket. In the silence of the news- room, the image of the dead bodies floated again before his eyes. His ulcer began to act up in the pit of his stomach. Leave me in peace, dan-unit. He inhaled the smoke and blew it out vigorously, but he couldn’t get rid of either the pain or the vision: the two inert faces in the mud, pallid and bloody, their skins almost translucent in the light of the flashbulbs. Then he saw himself returning to the newspaper in the downpour, smoking cigarette after cigarette, lighting each new one with the end of the last, in a vain attempt to chase away the stench of blood, sex, and alcohol that had clung to his body from the moment he entered the ruins of the movie theater.
“Soto, put out that cigarette,” Ramos, the editor, said from inside his office.
He stubbed out the butt, muttering a curse. He surveyed the signs that had recently been posted on every wall: NO SMOKING. Who the fuck cared about health, anyway? Orders from the new boss. But who could even think about complying with rules after being in that slaughterhouse?
Two bums … he hammered furiously at the computer keys. He stopped. Deleted those words. Replaced them. Two winos… he stopped again. Why didn’t the machine make any noise when he typed? Where had all those heavy, noisy metal machines gone, the ones that made you feel like you were really writing? He reached automatically for his cigarettes and was about to take one out, but left it in the pack, taking another look at the sanctimonious little signs.
Two bums, two winos, the same ones he had interviewed for a feature some months before. Two human beings covered in rags who in their own way embodied a metaphor of desire: In the midst of the most abject conditions, they built their own paradise, enjoyed secret pleasures, and cheated pain. Two genuine clochards who lived in the streets, ate out of garbage cans, slept in parks and abandoned buildings, and fucked whenever they felt like it. A couple in the true sense of the word. Coconspirators against the universe, lovers united by filth and hunger, paint thinner and alcohol, freedom, and desire. United, in the end, by the sheer bravery of staying together.
“It makes me sick,” Soto repeated, this time out loud, without knowing whose hoarse, anger-choked voice this was.
He had first seen them during a raid on a whorehouse disguised as a dance hall. That must have been at least a year ago. Soto arrived at the place along with a squad of judidales. The cops lined up all of the brothel’s fauna, and he got a kick out of photographing the dope-smokers hiding their faces, the transvestites proud of being women, the whores offering their bodies to anyone who might get them out of jail. While he was taking down the names of the arrestees, the couple approached him.
“Get us a bottle and we’ll pose for a picture.” He appreciated their initiative, though he couldn’t contain a gesture of repulsion: they smelled of vomit, of dried sweat, of aged shit: and through that fetid stink filtered another odor, perhaps warmer and sweeter, which that night Soto identified as the emanations of rotten fruit. Their appearance produced no better effect: the rags of both barely covered their skin, which was covered with pimples, sores, and some filthy deposits of blackened grease. The woman, nearly bald, displayed sunflower-shaped stains on her skull, like damp spots on walls. As for the man, he sported a mop of hair that extended six inches below his head, and its tip was a kind of hard and shiny tar.
It was worth it. Soto pointed the lens at them, which aroused the couple’s exhibitionism: first, they imitated wedding pictures, she standing, her gaze filled with hopeful dreams, and he seated, embracing her waist. Then they moved apart, gazing lovingly at each other, holding hands. Later they draped their arms over each other’s shoulders, like comrades, smiling at the camera with mold-covered teeth. Suddenly they kissed, and they were already caressing each other under their rags, when the roll ran out.
Then they came over to Soto so that he could fulfill his part of the bargain, but he pretended not to understand, muttering “some other time,” because the cops were starting to leave for patrol duty.
“Answer the phone, Soto!” Ramos shouted from a distance.
He looked at the receiver and didn’t even bat an eye at the subsequent rings. I want to smoke, not talk to Remedies. Because it had to be Remedies. Who else could it be, especially at this hour? Could it be three already? Goddamn security guard. The bodies had been discovered before midnight, as someone had confirmed through the newspaper’s police scanner. Two hours had passed and still he stank of death, blood, and sex. Only the smell of alcohol had disappeared. Another ring. Yes, it had to be Remedies calling to chew him out for his lateness and rudeness at not letting her know. And that image of the two faces united in death just wouldn’t go away. Rudeness. And he couldn’t even smoke. Didn’t she realize he didn’t want to talk to her? He felt sad and defeated in a way he hadn’t for a long time. Rudeness, lack of consideration: you don’t care that I can’t sleep when you don’t come home. I feel like getting drunk. Another ring. She can go to hell.
In the no-man’s-land of Mexico’s far north-harsh desert landscapes, bruising border towns, urban wastelands and fantastical rural villages-migrants, campesinos and travelers find themselves lost between reality and delirium, tragedy and exaltation.
No Man’s Land contains ten stories with an unflinching gaze onto the fragility and brutality of life: a tabloid journalist tracks a pair of homeless lovers; a blackout extinguishes the lights of Monterrey, unleashing anxieties and criminal tendencies; a visiting teacher in a remote village witnesses a brutal incident of vigilante justice; a desperate young boy crosses the border in search of a father lost to the North.
Eduardo Antonio Parra (Leon, Guanajuato, 1965) is the author of two collections of stories and -winner of Mexico’s National Prize for the Short Story.