I sell sheepskins. Perfect for people who practice transcendental meditation.
The sign juts up suddenly in the sky above the beltway. It’s a hazy deep green, rectangular and rusting away. Sitting shotgun, with my notebook in hand, it takes me a few moments to understand and write down the words. Fevers bring on this sort of sluggish lucidity. I want to laugh but the purple bolt of pain that slashes from my jaw to my ear is so bright that I find myself curled up into a ball in the seat. Without slowing her Mazda the least bit (the bitch has a Mazda; three years ago she was barely surviving by turning tricks, picking up paying pricks at El Diablito Tun Tun to the sound of reggaeton rhythms), Lisandra looks at me and says:
“You want an aspirin, baby?”
It’s neither a question nor a statement. It’s just polite auto-babble. A salicylic silk handkerchief to dull the razor blades of varying thickness slicing my face, the face of nothing. I answer no with a shiver: that was the babble I used to sputter out when I was a kid and thought about murdering Mom.
My mom made a living as cold mill laminator in the AHMSA Steel Plant No. 1. Every day she returned home from work encrusted from head to toe in metal shavings, and white from saltpeter, the soles of her feet cracking, her knees tight and creaking like knots, her calves hard as a cutting board. She made me massage her with Stanhome Foot Repair the whole afternoon while we watched reruns of tacky soap operas: “A Girl Named Miracle,” “Rina,” and “The Strange Return of Diana Salazar.” Once in a while we could hear Papa shouting as he played marbles out in the garden with the little kids. It made me really angry that he had permission to go out and play while I stayed inside.
“It’s you I love the most,” she said if I argued, her face taking on an expression she meant to look sweet but which always struck me as obscene.
Sometimes when I gave her massages I daydreamed, imagining Mom toppling into an enormous blast furnace, her body vaporized in the boiling pig iron (in school I’d seen some crude sketches of those gigantic ladles used to hold molten steel). It was a nightmarish vision and it made me feel enormously sad, almost bad enough to want to die too, but I consoled myself by playing marbles with Dad and the kids next door.
Sometimes Mom complained of a headache.
“Do you want an aspirin?” I’d ask her, imagining that maybe the pharmacist had accidentally dropped a few sleeping pills into the bottle of aspirin. Or better yet, a cyanide capsule like secret agents used in spy movies.
It wasn’t quite dark yet but she gave me my late afternoon snack and sent me off to bed.
“You’re the best boy in the world,” she would say, bending over me, before switching off the light. “Some day God will reward you so much, because there’s nothing holier in this world than someone who looks after their mother.”
Then she’d leave me there in my dark room. I’d lay awake for a long time. I’d listen to the television through the wall, trying to imagine a face and a situation for each character. I’d listen to the voices of the neighbors’ kids in the street, making fun of Dad’s stupidities. I’d review my plans for how to kill her until I was finally overcome by sadness or sleep.
“C’mon now, stop that,” says Lisandra. “You can’t go on like that, baby. Really.” She drums her fingers on the steering wheel until she remembers the prescription. “You’ve got to take a shot of that stupid Cetri-. . . .”
“Stop writing in your notebook, man, and listen to me. You’ve got to take your medicine and give it to your wife, too. Because, look, with that scrawny, flea-bitten body of hers, Cecilia isn’t gonna be able to put up with your little joke until you decide you’ve got the balls to tell her the truth, ok? You inject her or she dies, and then let’s see how you get rid of her body.
We cut across the edge of the city by a side street before hitting the bottleneck from the construction on the new bridge. Lisandra stops to get my prescription filled in a Guadalajara pharmacy. I stay in the car with my head leaning against the glass, reading over my notes. My hands are throbbing. I feel a spiral of pressure in my chest and my head, a spiral of pressure sliding out of my mouth like a vaporous boa constrictor. My fever must have risen to more than 102˚. They can all go to hell: I’m not taking any pills or injections. And Cecilia isn’t either.
Lisandra is just scornful of Cecilia’s body; the last vestige of the fact that she was once my wife.
I’d gone to Havana to play a show as the bassist in Daddy Dada. We performed in the Plaza de la Dignidad on the same bill as Elvis Manuel and Gente de Zona, playing on stage with our backs to the office of foreign affairs. There were about fifty or two hundred or two hundred thousand black flags with a white star in the middle (the number varies according to the level of patriotism of the Cuban who tells you about them), waving over our heads and making one hell of a racket throughout our whole set. I felt that I’d landed on a Caribbean island of heartless but well-intentioned pirates. Pirates with short-term collective amnesia: every so often they hoisted their corsair flag, as if that would stop the merciless English commandants from raping their mothers the way Blackbeard did.
The moment the show was over all of us musicians in Daddy Dada, like good little Mexican boys, immediately took off to scour the town for whores. (A Mexican is easy to spot in Havana, the taxi driver explained to us: he’s got a big belly, he’s demanding, he’s stingy, he dresses well, he sports his bling, and he asks where to find the blonde whores with the lightest skin.) They took us in a Chinese van to the legendary Diablito Tun Tun, the whole club throbbing with the sound of yet more reggaeton. I’d almost jump out a second-story window to get away from that hellish music, and the fans even clamor for autographs. It drives me fucking nuts: I was once an aspiring artist but a couple of rappers already have everything I ever dreamed of.
Lisandra was standing there at the door of the club, with her almost transparent eyes and her lightly freckled breasts, swaying more gracefully than a Las Vegas table dancer (collectivist and affable: “You’re not a penny pincher, I can tell you like to share.”) and asking for some Cuban pesos so she could get through the door. I paid her way in, treated her to a Red Bull, and fifteen minutes later we were back outside. Her “cousin” gave us a lift in his broken-down Ford to the half-dead entrance into central Havana where her “aunt” loaned her a room (with a TV with an antenna that could pick up the channels out of Miami) so she could spend some time alone with “her friends.”
I paid in advance.
Lisandra handed me a condom. I told her that first I wanted to give her head. She stripped naked without a word. She lay on her back, looking at the ceiling, spread her legs and let me sink my face between them. As I was stroking her soft hairy mound, I felt how she was getting excited little by little. There was a moment––the most intense one we’ve ever experienced together––when her back arched and her fingers very softly brushed the hair on my head. It barely lasted a second. Then she sat up all of a sudden, grabbed the condom from where I’d placed it on the bureau, and said to me:
“Alright: now put it on and get it over with.”
“Because you’re a tourist; you can’t touch me that way.”
“Because tourists make me wanna puke.”
I was so offended that I immediately had the idea that I wanted to marry her. I wanted to drag her back to Mexico, chain her to the wall of some shadeless, sun-bleached patio, force her to scrub the floors, wrapped tight in a pair of denim short-shorts that would allow me to comfortably appreciate (from the imaginary recliner of a postmodern creole slave driver) her legs and her ass.
“OK,” I told her.
I slipped on the rubber and came inside her as fast as I could.
Courting her was the easiest thing of all: three short days later we were already engaged. She gave me only two conditions: first, that her “cousin” not find out yet, and, second, that I let her keep going to the Diablito Tun Tun the same as always while we waited for her visa to be approved. It seemed reasonable to me. The afternoon that I had to catch the plane back to Mexico, Lisandra took me home to ask for her hand. Her father cried.
We got married. I got her out of Cuba and, for a few months, we lived together in my old apartment. It didn’t take me long to realize that it was going to be impossible to humiliate her, hate her, or fall in love with her: Lisandra is the sweetest person I know. She’s also as greasy as a pig and as hard as a hammer: everything slides right off her, and she puts a dent in everything. On the other hand, the sexual aura she so strongly exuded when I met her disappeared completely as soon as she stepped foot off the island. It was as if her body just suddenly powered down or got old or was suddenly drained of life.
One day she found a job (whoring didn’t spoil her schooling: she’s a certified nutritionist from the University of Havana and she speaks four languages). Placing her open palm on my crotch as a sign of peace, she told me: “Listen, darling, you and I have got nothing left to do together.” She packed her bags and moved in with a woman I know.
Lisandra returns to the car with the little bag of medicines. I ask her:
“How much do I owe you?”
“Quit fucking around. You just better take the prescribed dose and stop driving me crazy with all these trips to the doctor. Any day now my patience is going to come to an end.”
I sell sheepskins. Perfect for people who practice transcendental meditation.
Acetaminophen, commonly known by its brand name Tylenol, is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication used to reduce symptoms of pain. Occasionally it causes vomiting, diarrhea, and constipation. People who take it in place of aspirin run a greater risk of heart attacks or cerebrovascular accidents.
Ceftriaxone is a third-generation cephalosporin for parenteral use against serious gram-negative bacteria. It penetrates the blood-brain barrier, which makes it useful in the treatment of meningitis. Its spectrum is not effective against Pseudomonas aeruginosa. It must not be physically mixed with other medications. It can produce neurotoxicity if administered simultaneously with aminoglycosides.
Acetylsalicylic acid, the chemical name for aspirin, inhibits the activity of the cyclooxygenase enzyme, which diminishes the formation of precursors of prostaglandins and thromboxanes. It can induce bronchial spasms in patients with asthma. Children and adolescents with viral symptoms must not consume it owing to the risk of it causing Reye’s syndrome, which is usually fatal.
“Do you want an aspirin?” is a poisonous question.
One day Mom and Dad were arguing about the which way they needed to set a new beam in the house. “Like this,” she said. “No, this way,” said Dad, his voice shrill, about ready to throw a fit, and he turned it around. I was sitting on the floor, very close to them, monkeying around with the tools. The beam slipped out of their hands and landed on my head. They slapped a bandage on me, filled me up with pills, and bought me a carton of vanilla ice cream. Then Mom beat Dad with her belt and sent him off to sleep in the doghouse.
Lisandra turns the car onto Calle Pedro Aranda and we roll into the neighborhood of Colonia Bellavista, the uppermost district in the city. Below us lies the flooded quarry, a hard reddish pool, where they extracted the stone used to build the cathedral of Santiago Mataindios––St. James the Indian Slayer––constructed between 1745 and 1800 with the meagre funds of the rich people in the valley of Zapalinamé.
I am both the son and heir of a legendary man: Santiago el Cavernícola––the “caveman”––the hippie guitar hero, the mestizo twin of Robert Plant who sold his Chevy Nova to pay for a coyote to lead him up the stairway to heaven, to the land of stars and bars, to the house of the rising sun, and the dark side of the moon: I am son and heir of a handsome Mexican who became a wetback to get to California. Not to pick tomatoes but to become a rock star.
Santiago el Cavernícola left the barrio of Alacrán––a place whose name means “scorpion”–– long before I was born. He packed only a double change of clothes and the second-hand Takamine twelve-string he had bought at a flea market. Among the flock of teenage girls sighing and pining away in his absence was my mom.
There is a drop of blood trembling in the white of my left eye. I don’t see it: I feel it. I tried to turn my pupil inwards. I know perfectly well it can’t be done. I try. My fever must be close to 104˚. I need a cold shower to bring it down without any pills.
For years, nobody in our town heard anything about my dad. Not until a bus driver on a company shuttle for metalworkers ran into him trying to thumb a ride on Highway 40, near Cuatro Ciénegas. They say it was pretty difficult to recognize him: he’d shaved off all his long hair and his eyebrows with a straight razor. He was carrying a woman’s purse with a big wad of money: twenty thousand dollars. He spoke confusedly about Saint Francis of Assisi, and he hid from trees because, he said, they were trying to recruit him for the war.
Perfect for people who practice transcendental meditation.
Everyone realized that he was flying high on a permanent acid trip and nevertheless, for some months, he once again became one of the most popular young people on the scene. Partly because, as his hair started to grow back, the scars on his scalp became less noticeable and his brown face was as handsome as always. Partly because, by Alacrán standards, twenty thousand dollars was a fortune.
“Step on it,” I tell Lisandra. “I’ve got to get under the shower.”
“Again?” And she feels my forehead with the same hand that she uses to shift gears. “You’re going to take that fucking Acetaminophen.
It was thanks to my father’s acid madness that my mother, a shy and ugly woman, managed to seduce Santiago el Cavernícola. They got married. I was born. By the time my earliest memories begin, my dad’s mind had come down from its hellish time warp but he was now stuck somewhere between eight and ten years old, and maintained that emotional age until the day he died. We were great friends. He showed me a number of tricks for how to copy on exams. He was my biggest rival on the Atari console. And he became a true thug at playing marbles.
My mother, however, could never forgive the fact that he had destroyed his mind before letting her make love with him.
The car stops. My house. Black iron gate. The garden destroyed, kicked to pieces in a sudden attack of gastric infection. Cecilia is standing in the doorway. In pajamas. I think: if she continues trying to follow me in my experiments with feverish illnesses, she’s gonna kill herself. And Lisandra, again:
“You’ve got to take this fucking Acetaminophen. You’ve got to inject it right now.”
I’m slipping into the nirvana of fever: that sea of tranquility where thermometers burst and the blood swirls slowly behind the eyelids, and the fleshy matter (that well-congealed gelatin) begins to fall silent.
I sell sheepskins.
A surge of explosions or rustling leaves tearing me a part as if I were a saint.
— Julián Herbert, translated from the Spanish by Brendan Riley
Julián Herbert was born in Acapulco, Mexico, in 1971. In 1989 he settled in Coahuila, where he studied literature at university and still lives today. He has worked as an editor, cultural educator, and collaborator on numerous publications. His short stories and novels have received many literary prizes in Mexico. As a writer, he has worked in various genres, including poetry: El nombre de esta casa (1999); La resistencia (2003; rereleased in Spain by Vaso Roto publishing in 2014); Kubla Khan (2005); the short story: Cocaína/Manual de usuario (2006); the novel: Un mundo infiel (2004); as well as translation and literary criticism.
Brendan Riley has worked for many years as a teacher and translator. He holds degrees in English from Santa Clara University and Rutgers University. In addition to being an ATA Certified Translator of Spanish to English, Riley has also earned certificates in Translation Studies and Applied Literary Translation from U.C. Berkeley and the University of Illinois, respectively. His translation of Eloy Tizón’s story “The Mercury in the Thermometers” was included in Best European Fiction 2013. Other translations in print include Massacre of the Dreamers by Juan Velasco, and Hypothermia by Álvaro Enrigue. Forthcoming translations include Caterva by Juan Filloy, and The Great Latin American Novel by Carlos Fuentes.