In the tradition of Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and David Goodis, Héctor Aguilar Camín brings us a hard-boiled account of sex, corruption, and murder, where the line between memory and madness is blurred. The setting is Mexico. While attending the funeral of an old acquaintance, dissolute writer Serrano runs into a former rival. As Serrano digs into a past filled with excess and deceit, he finds himself questioning his own sanity.
|Publisher:||Schaffner Press, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||4.90(w) x 7.80(h) x 0.40(d)|
About the Author
Héctor Aguilar Camín is a Mexican writer, journalist and historian. In 1986 he received Mexico's Cultural Journalism National Award and three years later he received a scholarship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation while he was working as a researcher for the National Institute of Anthropology and History. In 2016 his memoir Adiós a los padres was shortlisted for the Vargas Llosa Prize. Chandler Thompson acquired his translating chops in the 1960s as a Peace Corps Volunteer. He's covered Mexico as a stringer for The Christian Science Monitor and as reporter for The El Paso Times. He previously translated Héctor Aguilar Camín's novel Death In Veracruz.
Read an Excerpt
I DON'T KNOW WHY I'M GOING to Olivares's wake. He's not my friend, and I don't know his family. Felo Fernández tells me the wake is tomorrow. He says, "Maybe we'll run into each other." I have a soft spot for Felo Fernández. I haven't seen him in years, and much of what I hear about him strains credibility. That he chews glass when he's drunk, for example. Or that he's ridden an elephant. He once hired an elephant so a politician running for office could ride it into a town. The candidate wants to let everyone know times have changed and he stands for change. There's a circus camped on the edge of the town; Felo thinks riding into town on an elephant is a great way for the candidate to get his message across. The stunt is a resounding success, but, like tasters who must try their masters' food, Felo has to ride the elephant first.
Olivares's friends are all at the wake.
I don't know if friendship is the right word for what brings these people together. They're classmates who later became Olivares's cronies in the political science department of the old national university. Closing my eyes, I can still see the small school of old with its patch of lawn and its cafeteria full of the beautiful girls he lusted after first as a student, then as a professor, and finally as department head.
The best and brightest of the Olivares generation come to the wake: a former dean, a former guerrilla fighter, a former police chief. And el Pato Vértíz, who's barely a shell of his former self. First Olivares was el Pato's disciple, then his secretary, and finally his protector as age yellowed el Pato's teeth, flattened his nose, and added an unseemly bulge to his midsection.
I see el Pato at the rear of the funeral parlor when I arrive. He sees me too. At the risk of being ignored he chances a wave across the roomful of bald and graying heads. He knows I can't ignore the history we share. That history hurts.
I'm drunk out of my mind on a sofa in the house of Liliana Montoya, who is also drunk. I'm twenty-four and she's twentytwo. Lilliana tells me her younger sister's been dishonored and she, Liliana, had the creep who did it killed. She arranged it through the dirty old man who's been her lover for several months, a doctor of criminology named Roberto Gómez Vértiz, better known as el Pato, the man waving at me from across the room.
Liliana tells me about her crime at the end of a family party that lasts until dawn. She's still living in her mother's house, having not yet moved in with el Pato. She's so drunk that she has to throw up and must rush to the bathroom. Then she falls asleep in my lap. Although I attribute her dire scheme to alcohol, I record it in a notebook the next day. Years go by without my knowing if what Liliana told me on the couch is true or not, if it's a product of my inebriation or hers. I'm inclined to believe it's true; it's a plot Liliana could hatch. I've always known it's a scene with the seeds of a novel in it.
I must now disclose that I'm a writer. I don't mince words, and I stay on point. I cleave to my biases, and I don't digress. Reading what I write isn't enough, you must also doubt.
El Pato Vértiz heads the clique of faculty members who do the government's bidding at the university post-1968, toadies the rest of the university despises.
He's called el Pato Vértiz because he waddles like a duck, but that's the only way he resembles a duck. Otherwise he's like a cat or a crocodile. At forty, when he beds Liliana, his dry skin and thinning hair bespeak the man he'll be at sixty. He has dark skin, darker lips, and buck teeth that really could be an incipient duckbill. He smokes vanilla-scented cigarettes with black wrappings and gold filters and lords over the law school like an invisible god. He teaches criminology, but what he really does is run the place. He's the gray eminence of student brawls, the protector of gangs, and the alchemist who makes sure student groups elect the right leaders. He knows everything there is to know about promising undergraduates, including a bit of dirt on them or their parents. He intuits the unscrupulous adult in the dissolute youth and spots flickers of ambition and venality in recently registered coeds according to the length of their skirts. He could have been an omniscient novelist, but he's too corrupt. At heart he's only a flatterer and a cop. He's onto Liliana Montoya the minute he sees her. She has long legs and eyes that sparkle.
Liliana is the younger sister of my friend Rubén Montoya. Their widowed mother had fourteen children: six boys and eight girls. The mother is missing two front teeth, and when she eats she purses her lips over the gap where they used to be. I borrowed her dark eyes, and, as best I could, her heart for a story about a mother looking for her son in a police lockup. When she learns he's been killed, she adopts a prisoner who happens to be nearby and makes him her substitute son.
The day Rubén's mother meets me she dubs me Ricardo after her deceased son, Liliana's twin. Ricardo dies when a busload of pilgrims going to the Shrine of the Virgin of Chalma rolls over. It isn't the bus Ricardo's supposed be on for Mexico City; he isn't a pilgrim. At the bus station in Morelia he boards the bus to Chalma on a whim. He just wants to see the shrine and meet the pilgrims. He meets death.
I become a friend of Liliana's family thanks to her brother Rubén, who's my classmate at the university. The day I walk through the door of the Montoya house with its high ceilings and old rooms near the Buenavista train station, Liliana's mother says: "You're just like my Ricardo." She makes the sign of the cross over my forehead, mouth and chest, then gazes into my eyes as if looking for a secret only she can see. While Rubén's mother gives me her triple blessing my eye is on a shaft of light at the far side of the dining room. It's early spring in the city, and the sun shines down on the spot where a barefoot girl is standing. The radiance makes the thin fabric of her dress translucent, creating a silhouette of her body. It traces the high arches of her feet, her long legs and full hips; she has a child's narrow waist and long arms as well rounded as her legs. Her girlishly bright eyes sparkle. She's amused at the sight of her mother kissing me. She has white teeth and the high cheekbones of a cat. Under the bright light her black hair seems almost blue. She looks on as her mother kisses me. She already knows all about me. Everything.
As proof of my adoption Mrs. Montoya gives me a key to the front door. Lilliana and I reward her trust with incest. One afternoon I arrive at the house with its huge kitchen and long hallways to find Liliana washing her underwear in the sink. It's Thursday of Holy Week. Her mother has gone to Morelia with the rest of the family. Lilliana has decided not to go and is alone in the house. She says, "I'm out of fresh underwear, take a look."
She lifts her skirt so I can see. Her thighs and stomach are brown, her pubic hair jet black, almost blue. I'll never forget that body, that hair. Nor will they forget me. Keep this in mind from now on, this is not a moment I'll forget. Liliana sits on the sink and opens herself to me. She's the goddess of moisture. She smells of freshly cut firewood, of the detergent she uses to wash her underwear, and the perfumed sweetness of a strip joint. She giggles like a parrot while I'm in her. She says she's going to tell on me, tell her mom what I do to her, what I'm leaving inside her by the liter. The words she speaks that afternoon become a code: "I'm telling my mom on you." From then on she'll repeat these words as an invitation. If she speaks them when we're alone it means I can lift her skirt and enter right away because she's all ready. If she says them in front of her siblings or mother after dinner, or when saying goodnight, it means I should pretend I'm going to the bathroom where she'll be sitting on the sink or leaning against the wall with her skirt up.
El Pato's wave brings everything back to me. I don't approach him to say hello. I do my best to pretend I can't work my way to the back of the room because I'm sidetracked into conversations with others. But el Pato is sly, he slithers through the crowd, and I hear his voice cascading down my back.
"How are you, old friend?"
When I turn around his large trembling hand is extended.
"How are you?" he repeats.
I say fine ..., and how's he?
"I live and learn, my friend. Who would have guessed that you'd turn out to be our writer?"
He wheezes when he talks due to asthma or emphysema. One eyelid droops more than the other. The half-open eye has a deadly stare. His lashes are long and curled, the one sign of life on his face.
"We must talk," he says. "You've forgotten us."
I have no idea what he means by "us" because I never see him or anyone close to him. I think he uses the plural to set the stage for what he'll later describe as a "reencounter."
Making his way through the mourners, Felo Fernández comes to my rescue. "Our friend the Rector wants to say hello to you," he says.
El Pato Vértiz is standing next to me, he hastens to clarify: "Former dean."
The barb is deft and quick. Felo parries it with his inimitable humor. "We're all grateful for the way the 'former dean' did his job. He taught us how to fatten our bank accounts."
El Pato's guffaw shatters the prevailing murmur in the room. His laugh belies his years as if old age were just a disguise for his cheerful and predatory soul.
WHEN I GET HOME from Olivares's wake, I search my papers for whatever I can find about Liliana Montoya. My old notebooks are full of things about our relationship that had slipped my memory.
My incestuous dalliances with Liliana Montoya begin, as already noted, one Thursday in April 1972 on the kitchen sink in her house. Shortly before that scene, in February, Liliana turned 18. I turned 20 that January. Two years later, in 1974, Liliana enrolls in the school of political science, and I'm in my third year of philosophy and letters. Come 1976 Liliana's in her second year of political science, and she's going around with el Pato Vértiz. El Pato's twenty years her senior, and he takes her to a candlelight dinner with violins at a restaurant best known for its snob appeal. Before then she'd only dated me and others her own age. Her promiscuity bothers me, but my jealousy is no match for my libido. She's always saying she wants to leave home and move in with me, but I have no money and no place to put her. Besides, I want to write, and Liliana doesn't strike me as the sort of wife a writer ought to have. Her speaking voice is strident, her singing voice is unforgettable, but her laugh is loud and vulgar, and she laughs at anything, especially me. In public, in the metro, wherever. Her cackle makes people look away, but they can't help watching her out of the corners of their eyes, she's so pretty, but what a horrible laugh.
I now turn to Liliana's younger sister. Her name's Dorotea. My earliest memory of her is as a girl in a violet school uniform and sagging bobby socks. From the body of a young girl the shape of a woman is beginning to blossom but has yet to bloom. She's tall and slender. She has the smooth, nut-brown skin that painters such as Romero de Torres try to replicate in their dusky female subjects. Although she seems bright and alert, Dorotea's expression doesn't quite hide an underlying sense of boredom. Her smile is ironic as if she's bracing herself for the scorn of others. It's hard to imagine this girl in the clutches of someone who would abuse her.
One night she comes to Liliana with the veins in her wrist partially slit and says she's been dishonored. Dorotea is 18, the age Liliana was at the time of our first coupling. Dorotea's boyfriend is twenty years older than she is, an age gap identical to the one between el Pato Vértiz and Liliana when he began taking her out. Liliana listens closely as Dorotea tells how her boyfriend humiliates her. The sisters call him el Catracho, a slur often applied to Hondurans. Dorotea's ashamed of the things el Catracho makes her do. He forces her to take pills and inhale substances that weaken her will. He makes her dress up as an old woman or a little girl, a nun or the Virgin. Dorotea is in tears as she describes how she's been mistreated. Worse yet, Liliana thinks, he's not even Mexican. She can't say why, but his being a foreigner makes him doubly evil in her eyes. The next day she tells el Pato Vértiz to get rid of el Catracho. El Pato laughs and tells her she's crazy. He offers to have el Catracho beaten up and deported. Liliana looks at el Pato as if he's misunderstood her. She repeats herself. At first el Pato can't believe she's serious, her words frighten him. He doesn't know what to say. Days go by, and Liliana doesn't let up. When is el Catracho going to be killed? El Pato's non-committal. Liliana goes on strike, she refuses to sleep with el Pato as long as el Catracho is alive. It takes a month and a half for el Pato to learn his lesson. There's nothing he can do about Liliana's abstinence. He's as fatally drawn to Liliana as I am though in a more unusual way. El Pato thinks he's master of his own fate; I think I am what I am with no delusions about being anything more.
One day el Pato demands that Liliana come back. The next day he pleads with her. There comes a night when he admits to himself that he's desperate for her. He's as addicted to Liliana as I am. One evening, while she's having supper with her family in the San Rafael district, he phones to say, "Mission accomplished."
Later he shows her photos of a man with a bullet hole in his head. One eye is half-open, and he's lying in a pool of blood. Upon seeing the photos, Dorotea bursts into tears. It's el Catracho.
As I said, I heard about this from Liliana after a roaring drunk from which I woke up hungover and scared. Scared by what I'd heard and frightened by the woman I heard it from, I make up my mind to stay away from Liliana, to stop seeing her. I don't realize such things are not for me to decide.
I don't go near her during the Christmas holiday that year, and I don't return her calls. I'm already out of college, and there's no need for me to cross paths with her. But Liliana shows up at my January 14 birthday party anyway. As usual, the celebration culminates in a round of serious barhopping. I wake up in a fleabag hotel with Liliana beside me. I have no memory of the previous day, but I do recall the day before that. I particularly remember the sinister detail Liliana adds when she tells me about the murder of el Catracho for a second time. She and Dorotea go to see the body she says, and Dorotea prods it with her foot to make sure he's dead.
Once again I'm horrified, and I hasten to get away from Liliana. She comes looking for me, but I refuse to be found. Finally, I write her a letter asking her for a truce. Couldn't we stop seeing each other for a few months? I need to clear my head, I'm going on a trip, I ought to write a book. Liliana writes back, "This isn't a war, asshole."
But it is, it's begun to be.
The day Liliana calls to say she's going on vacation with el Pato Vértiz for the first time, she adds, "If you ask, I'll go with you."
I don't have enough money, and I don't want to take her anywhere. Thinking about where she can take me makes me dizzy. That's where I want to go. When it comes to Liliana, it's the story of my life.
When she finishes college, el Pato's graduation gift is an apartment. Liliana doesn't turn it down. Before moving, she sends me a note telling me what she's up to. At the end she writes, "If you ask, I'll move in with you."
I don't ask, but I call her to say don't move in with el Pato.
"What'll you give me?" she replies. I tell her I can't give her anything, but she shouldn't move in with el Pato.
"The train comes by just once in a lifetime, Serranito."
My last name is Serrano, and this is the first time she calls me Serranito. Her use of the diminutive says it all. I'm afraid of the woman I love, and that makes me less of a man in her eyes. And in mine too.
The following year, while distancing myself from Liliana, I marry Aurelia Aburto, a colleague at the newspaper I've begun working for. It's a left-wing paper from which I'm fired and where I make enemies for life. Starting with Aurelia.
Excerpted from "Day In, Day Out"
Copyright © 2017 Héctor Aguilar Camín.
Excerpted by permission of Schaffner Press.
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