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Canción

In Guatemala City, the shadows of the past weigh heavily on the living.

Pierre Perrin/Gamma Rapho via Getty Images

Bodies of suspected rebels dumped in a wrecked car by the White Hand, a right-wing paramilitary group, during the civil war in Guatemala, 1982

They called him Canción because he used to be a butcher. Not because he was a musician. Not because he was a singer (he couldn’t even sing). But because when he got out of jail in Puerto Barrios, where he’d been sent for holding up a gas station, he worked for a time in Doña Susana’s meat shop, in a run-down neighborhood of Guatemala City. They say he was a good butcher. Very kind with the ladies from the neighborhood who bought cuts of beef and sausages there. And his nickname, then, was nothing more than an alliteration between the words in Spanish for butcher (carnicero) and song (canción). Or at least that’s what some of his friends claimed. Others, however, said that he got his nickname thanks to his peculiar and melodic way of talking. And still others, perhaps the most intrepid ones, attributed it to his capricious nature of always confessing too much, of singing more than he should. His closest friends, his comrades, called him Ricardo. But his name was Percy. Percy Amílcar Jacobs Fernández. It was he—Percy, or Ricardo, or Canción—who a few years after working as a butcher kidnapped my grandfather.

*

I arrived too early. I walked up to the counter and said hello to the waiter, an elderly gentleman dressed in a white shirt and black pants who had probably been there his entire life, behind that same counter, preparing drinks for those same clients.

What can I get you, caballero?

I was surprised I’d heard him (he mumbled without opening his mouth, like a ventriloquist), until I noticed that in the bar reigned an almost sepulchral silence. No music. Very few and solitary patrons. I ordered a Negra Modelo and went to wait for it at the table farthest away from a soundless television that hung from the ceiling. At the table next to me, two men were sharing a bottle of rum and a bowl of potato chips; at another table, an older woman, wearing a miniskirt and way too much lipstick, was eyeing a newspaper with little or no interest, perhaps just looking at the photos; at another table, a man in a coat and tie typically worn by a frustrated notary was holding with both hands his glass of whiskey, almost clinging to his glass of whiskey, while he observed me with a serious and indiscreet expression. I noticed that behind the bar, inside an old wooden bookcase with glass doors, there was a series of diplomas and gold medals and large silver trophies and a small taxidermized ocelot, about to attack. Far away, at the other end of the bar, were the two swinging doors of the bathrooms: the men’s marked by an old magazine cutout of a young and dusty Clint Eastwood, the women’s marked by an old magazine cutout of a loud and bosomy Marilyn Monroe. Through the large window I could see the silhouettes and lights of the downtown traffic. It was beginning to get dark.  

I pulled closer the small clay ashtray that was on the table, lit a cigarette, and stared anxiously at the front door, thinking all the while that a bar located on the corner of a round building is surely a metaphor of something.

*

I was born in a dead-end street. That is, when I was born, in 1971, my parents lived in a new house on a dead-end street. At the entrance of the street, on Avenida Reforma, there used to be a famous ice-cream parlor on one corner, and a not so famous metal merchant’s on the other. I have no memories of that dead-end street, of course, but there exist several silent home movies that serve as evidence of my first years there. Me, as a newborn in my mother’s arms, coming home from the hospital in a jade-colored Volvo. Me, as a one-year-old, sitting inside a wooden cart painted sky blue while a black goat gives me a ride up and down the street, and an indigenous boy, barefoot and dressed in rags, guides the black goat with a thin lasso (a typical entertainment of that time for the birthday parties of wealthier kids). Me, as a two-year-old, spinning in circles in front of the metal merchant’s with my face lathered in tangerine sorbet, and then, in a foreshadowing of many dizzy spells that were to come, throwing up a tangerine stream all over the curb. Me, as a three-year-old, playing with the neighbor’s dog, a plump and lazy dachshund named Sancho. And even though there’s no silent home movie of it, on a cold January morning of 1967, four years before I was born, and while our future house was still under construction, a police car stopping my Lebanese grandfather at the entrance of the dead-end street, on the corner of Avenida Reforma, to kidnap him.

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*

The waiter arrived. He placed on the table a Negra Modelo and a huge frozen mug, and I asked him if he couldn’t bring me a small glass instead. The old waiter made a gesture with his face, one of frustration or maybe bewilderment. I was forced to explain to him that I like to drink dark beer slowly, pouring myself one sip at a time in a small glass, whether it be a tumbler or a goblet or a rocks or an old-fashioned. I then thought of telling him to please hurry, since I like to alternate small sips of dark beer with quick drags of my cigarette, although I’ve never been quite sure if it’s a matter of enjoying the bitter taste in my mouth, or perhaps of superstition. I then thought of telling him (or paraphrasing to him) that the history of my life had become irredeemably intertwined with my history of beer and cigarettes. But I remained silent. And the old waiter just made another gesture, only this time a gesture with his entire face, an exaggerated, almost buffoon-like gesture, as if saying it’s up to you, caballero, but only a madman drinks his beer that way. He snatched the frozen mug from the table and walked back to the counter dragging his feet, and I became suddenly excited as I saw out of the corner of my eye that someone had pushed open the front door. Only a boy carrying a flimsy cardboard box. He was selling green parrots.

*

Inside the police car, parked and waiting for my grandfather at the corner of the dead-end street, on that cold morning in January of 1967, there were four men. One was half-asleep in the back seat with a white towel rolled around his neck like a thick scarf. Next to him, another man was cleaning the window with a page from an old newspaper. Another man, the driver, waited in silence with the engine turned on, his hands gripping the steering wheel far too tightly. And another man was ready to jump out of the passenger door as soon as he saw in the rearview mirror the cream-colored Mercedes approaching on Avenida Reforma.

Of the four men, only one would survive the civil war.

*

My grandfather awoke before sunrise. He was anxious (as if he somehow knew what the day held in store for him). He took a shower and got dressed slowly, silently, so as not to wake my grandmother. He went down to the dining room and ate breakfast by himself. After making a phone call, he got into his cream-colored Mercedes, turned on the engine, and exited through the main gate.

It was still early in the morning. The dew and January cold had not yet lifted. My grandfather reached the bank too soon. It was still closed, and he had to wait outside, standing in the almost deserted street. When it finally opened, my grandfather conducted his business (angrily, the teller would later state) and went back out to his cream-colored Mercedes.

He drove diligently. Inside one of the front pockets of his trousers was the thick wad of bills he’d just withdrawn at the bank—the equivalent of $2,500—to pay the construction workers their two-weeks’ salaries. Inside the other front pocket of his trousers was his bank booklet, with all of his financial information and the actual account balance. In his coat’s inside pocket were two gold-plated pens. And on his pinky finger, as always, he was wearing his ring encrusted with a three-carat diamond.

He reached the dead-end street on Avenida Reforma.

There was a police car parked in the entrance, blocking his way. One of the policemen was already standing outside on the curb and motioned for him to stop and get out of the car.

*

I was pouring myself another drink of dark beer in the small glass when someone pushed open the front door and came into the bar. Just a young guy. He was wearing what looked like a school uniform, but a school uniform at the end of the day, all ruffled and untidy. He walked straight toward the older woman in a miniskirt and, after whispering in her ear something I couldn’t quite make out, he placed a few bills on the table. It occurred to me that he was there to pay her tab (maybe she was his mother or his grandmother), but she just picked up the bills without even looking up from the newspaper and stuffed them inside her bra. He was still standing beside her, his head bent low, as if he’d been chided, when suddenly someone much younger—a teenager—entered the bar and stood behind him, as if waiting for his turn. The first guy ambled out of the bar. Hesitantly, the second guy took a step forward. He also whispered something unintelligible into her ear. He also placed a handful of bills on the table. And the old woman, without saying anything, without even looking up, also shoved them into her bra.

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*

Tiburón (shark): the name given by the guerrillas of the Armed Rebel Forces to the police car used that cold January morning for the kidnapping of my grandfather, or rather, the name given to the car they used as a police car. It had belonged to the government’s Secretary of Information, Baltasar Morales de la Cruz, who had been kidnapped a few months earlier (his son, Luis Fernando, was killed in the shootout, as was his driver, Chabelo). The guerrillas had arrived in a blue truck to kidnap Morales de la Cruz, but it had stalled in the getaway. So they decided to leave the blue truck behind and take Morales de la Cruz in his own car: a 1964, chalk-white Chrysler Imperial Crown. A few months later, that same Chrysler was painted gray and disguised as a police car—and as a shark—and lying in wait at the entrance of the dead-end street to kidnap my grandfather.

*

The Guatemalan guerrilla was created at the beginning of the 1960s, in the mountains, by a ghost and a caiman.

On November 13, 1960, approximately one hundred military officials attempted to revolt against the imperialist influence of the US, which secretly, at a private farm called La Helvetia, had been training Cuban exiles and anti-Castro mercenaries for the upcoming Cuban invasion at the Bay of Pigs (at that same private farm, whose owner was a business partner of the Guatemalan president, the CIA had already established a central radio command from which it would later coordinate the failed invasion). Most of the military officials involved in the revolt were quickly condemned and summarily executed, but two of them were able to escape into the mountains: a lieutenant named Marco Antonio Yon Sosa, and a second lieutenant named Luis Augusto Turcios Lima. Both of them, as soldiers, had been trained in counter-insurgency tactics by the US Army; one at Fort Benning, Georgia, the other at Fort Gulick, Panama. And while hiding in the mountains, Yon Sosa and Turcios Lima began to organize the country’s first guerrilla movement (or front, in local slang): the Revolutionary Movement of 13th November. Just over a year later, in 1962, after a group of soldiers killed eleven university students while they were putting up protest posters in downtown Guatemala City, the Revolutionary Movement of 13th November joined forces with the Guatemalan Labor Party to form the Armed Rebel Forces. It’s estimated that by the time my grandfather was kidnapped, in January of 1967, there were three hundred guerrilla fighters in the country. Average age: twenty-two. Average time as a guerrilla fighter before getting killed: three years.

Turcios Lima would survive in the mountains, his comrades used to say, because he was, in fact, a ghost. Yon Sosa would fool the soldiers at night, his comrades used to say, because he was really a caiman that slept inside the belly of another, more colossal caiman. Until the night that he was ambushed and killed in Tuxtla, Mexico. And the body of the ghost that was Turcios Lima showed up one morning in the capital city, charred black inside his own charred car.    

*

A middle-aged man stood in the night, on the other side of the glass door. He was dressed entirely in black and was staring at each of us sitting inside the bar, as if searching for someone. He then closed his eyes and raised a book high with his right hand. Sinners, he yelled with rage through the glass, his eyes still closed. He yelled out something else, a slow, lingering sentence, perhaps a biblical quote that I didn’t understand through the glass door, or that I didn’t want to understand through the glass door, and he fell silent. He was swaying back and forth. He looked as if he was praying wordlessly. Nobody else in the bar seemed to notice him or even acknowledge his presence on the other side of the glass door, and it occurred to me that he, too, arrived there every night, that he, too, every night was another regular of the bar. Suddenly, with the book still held high and his eyes still closed, the man leaned forward and placed his lips on the glass. As if kissing the glass. Or as if kissing all of us sinners inside the bar.

*

My grandfather got out of his cream-colored Mercedes. He didn’t turn off the engine. Didn’t shut the door. Didn’t even bother to park it properly on the side road of Avenida Reforma, in front of the famous ice-cream parlor; it was still early in the morning, there were few cars or pedestrians about. The policeman approached him, and my grandfather, perhaps because he noticed the policeman’s childish face, or perhaps because he noticed that his uniform fit him comically large, started speaking to him in an insolent manner. Move that patrol car (waving his index finger). Don’t touch me (snapping back his arm). But the officer simply told him in a calm voice that he had a warrant for his arrest, for contraband. My grandfather, who spoke loudly and brusquely to everyone, with his heavy Arabic accent, started speaking even more loudly and more brusquely to the policeman with the childlike demeanor who didn’t want to, or couldn’t, give him a clear explanation, and who refused to show my grandfather the supposed arrest warrant. But suddenly the policeman said something to him in a whisper, his words barely a curl of white mist, and my grandfather walked with him over to the police car and obediently got into the back seat. And sitting there, between two other policemen, the last thing he saw out of the window was his daughter, my father’s oldest sister, racing toward the car. Then everything went black. 

*

The two men at the table next to mine called over the waiter and ordered another eighth of rum. Their faces were red and sweaty. One of the men, his head bent low, seemed about to fall asleep. The other man was holding the empty bottle in his hands, almost caressing it with sadness or longing. I noticed that there was another empty eighth of rum on the table and thought of asking them why they hadn’t initially just ordered a large bottle instead of drinking small eighths of a liter, but I preferred to guess. Option A: the two men, when they arrived at the bar, planned to drink only an eighth between them, but then, feeling the beginnings of a rum-induced fever, decided to prolong the night and share a second eighth, then a third. Option B: the two men, when they arrived at the bar, had asked the barman for a liter of rum, but had been told that unfortunately there were no liter bottles of rum left, just eighths of a liter. Option C: the two men were of the philosophy that rum tastes better in servings of 125 milliliters. Option D: the two men had no philosophy or project whatsoever and simply drank rum with the levity of two blind men standing on the edge of an abyss. And as I was trying to come up with a fifth option to explain drinking rum in that manner, the man who was about to fall asleep lifted his gaze up toward me—a teary, milky gaze—and spouted: Get the devil out of that fucking thing. It took me a few seconds to realize that he wasn’t looking at me or talking to me. The other man, the one who was holding the empty bottle, reached out his other hand and grabbed a lighter from the table and, after lighting it, held the flame to the bottom of the bottle, as if heating it up. Then, carefully, he held the flame at the mouth of the bottle. From the opening shot out a blue malignant blaze.

*

My grandfather had telephoned his oldest daughter that morning, just before leaving the house, to tell her to meet him at the construction site, that he wanted to show her how the work was going. And so, as she waited there, standing in the dead-end street, she saw from afar how her father had left the cream-colored Mercedes badly parked on the side road of Avenida Reforma, the engine still running, the door half-open; how her father yelled and argued with one of the policemen; how that same policeman then whispered something that she couldn’t hear (she just saw the white mist of the words), but which immediately silenced her father. And without even thinking about it, she had started running down the street, toward them.

Now she was standing in front of the patrol car, defying the policemen, insulting the policemen, shouting at them that she refused to move out of the way until they explained to her why they were taking her father, why the black hood over his head. 

One of the policemen opened his door. He got out slowly. Just as slowly, and barely smiling, he pointed his machine gun at her.

Move, lady, or I’ll rip you in two.

The policeman, impeccably disguised as a policeman, was Canción.


This excerpt was adapted by the author from his forthcoming book in Spanish, Canción, which will be published in January by Libros del Asteroide.

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