Publication Studio recently released Matthew Stadler’s fifth novel, Chloe Jarren’s La Cucaracha. With this book Stadler challenges our ideas about authorship. The story is a “cover” of another book (ala rock-and-roll cover songs). In this case, Stadler has shoehorned his own creativity into the tightly defined structure of John LeCarré’s 1962 novel, A Murder of Quality. It is a stunningly original work riding on a classic tale.
Herewith, Numéro Cinq is pleased to bring you chapter one.
Chloe Jarren’s La Cucaracha
By Matthew Stadler
The city fills a great bowl in the steep Sierra Madre, the meeting place of three river canyons that the Chichimeca Indians called “the place of the frogs.” There were frogs here, and Chichimeca, for centuries before the arrival of Spanish armies. Today the only frogs are on tee-shirts and the shelves of ticky-tack tourist stands. The Chichimeca have been bred away or simply disappeared into the immensity of the surrounding Mexican countryside. The name survived, altered slightly by the conquerors from “Xuana Huato,” to Guanajuato, a word so serenely Spanish sounding that tour guides must remind the visitor of its Chichimeca origins. It is a mestizo name, a halfbreed, hiding its native blood behind the pleasing sonority of a well-fed Castilian lisp.
The basin holds a colorful patchwork of buildings, all of them forever under construction, four centuries of architecture tossed carelessly together, like so many toys in a spoiled child’s treasure chest. The rim of the canyon is bare, an empty mountainous plain of scrub brush and rock, but below it the city presses up from the depths of the basin, surpassing the busy ring road, the panoramica, to reach the upper limits of the delivery men who hand-carry their heavy canisters of gas and agua into the crowded warrens of houses.
It doesn’t matter what day it is; always, as the late afternoon sun burnishes the ridge of the cerro de Serena to the east, a series of cannon blasts echoes up the steep canyon walls, like rocks skipping on water, plonk plonk plonk plonk, further and further, until with a last dim splash they disappear. Puffs of smoke lift from the houses. It is impossible to tell who is firing the cannon or why, the scene is too closely packed and confusing.
The blasts are followed shortly by the machine gun staccato of hundreds of schoolboys pounding on drums. Dressed in white and green, they’re visible in glimpses as they serpentine their way down the hill into traffic. There is some kind of saint or a dead person laid on a bier with ribbons and candles at the front. Templo de San Francisco’s rough stone towers catch the last sunlight, golden against the blue sky. Birds lift from the plaza, disturbing the trash, and men pulling on long ropes ring the bells of the church. By the entrance to the tunnel, scores of trumpets mew like sick calves as the absent minded boys keep pounding on their drums and traffic pools behind them. It could be any day of the year. There is always a parade, always the fugitive cannon blasts, always the haphazard ranks of boys in their school uniforms raising a holy hell as the day tumbles forward.
A pair of tall, slim figures moves serenely through the din, patient and erect, watching. The two ladies from Seattle. Their skin glows soft against the warm turquoise folds of their Indian wraps. The older one pauses before a tray of handpainted trinkets. Her gaze is so steady she need simply level it to possess whatever she sees. No need to reach out or touch.
“Sasha has one of these rings,” the older lady says. “I didn’t know Sasha had ever been to Guanajuato.”
Her friend, the soothing one, answers, “Oh, yes, I recognize that ring. Sasha got hers in Bali. Last Christmas when she went on that orphan bird mission.” They gaze at the ring, and then past it at the flocks of girls in pleated skirts and cardigans rushing by, primary school girls still in their uniforms, arms locked around each other’s shoulders, and imagine Bali: the thick jungle, the brightly colored birds.
“Bali? But it’s Mexican. I can tell by the design. And, of course, because we’re in Mexico.”
“No, no, I’m sure Sasha got hers in Bali. She was very proud of the find.”
“Maybe it’s from the same tribe. These indigenous people were so mobile.”
“Or…or, it’s one of those Rupert Sheldrake things, what do they call it?”
“The ‘morphogenic field,’ dear. It certainly looks that way. All of these native designs have that, that circular thing, and then the tiny divisions, like…like a maze or something.” They gaze together in wonder. “Genius.” And then they walk away. “Fielding is having the Barkers to dinner tonight. I wonder if we can get an invite?”
“Oh, I love the Barkers, but I can’t stand that Fielding. He’s so full of himself. Always speaking in Spanish.”
“And not even very good Spanish.”
“No, I didn’t think it was.”
“That’s why you can’t understand him, dear. He gets drunk and garbles everything. Half of it is French, and the other half is God knows what.”
“But you like him, don’t you.” It was said as a statement of fact. “You like it when he gets drunk and gossips.”
“Oh, I like it very much. He’s like some kind of character from Le Carré, some tragic wreck with a brilliant mind.” The pair smile at each other, pleased with the aptness of the image. Now they too would become characters in a book by Le Carré—the clever, knowing ladies who have this Fielding all figured out.
“He’s a reptile, so voracious.”
“No, he’s just social. It was like tearing an oyster from its bed when he got moved over from San Miguel. He’s just finding his footing again, dear. Sifting everything, making a place for himself, so he can…” She searches for the right phrase, the one with the right blend of hope and ambition and, is it malice? The younger one, the soothing one, finds it for her.
“…so he can make a home here.”
* * *
Eric Fielding had lived in San Miguel de Allende, the wellheeled gringo mecca an hour-and-a-half ’s drive away, for a dozen years, until his friend, Kimberly Dwyre, moved him to Guanajuato that summer. Dwyre, who was very rich and powerful, was the one who had suggested San Miguel in the 1990s, after a small land deal in Seattle’s real estate boom gave Fielding the means to escape his dull life as an adjunct chemistry teacher at the local university. The land deal had also been Dwyre’s idea, a scrap thrown Fielding’s way, but that was not unusual for them. The two were inseparable friends, not least as bereaved survivors of the apocalypse of AIDS (their address books were funeral monuments, thick with blacked out names of the dead); Fielding was very happy with Dwyre’s offer of “an easy job…not really even a job at all…” and a house in a part of Mexico that was still cheap and deeply connected to the social milieu they knew and loved. Dwyre would split her time. There would be sun and superb food and ample time for music (Fielding was an unusually skilled cellist), reading, and lavish entertaining. “My retirement,” Fielding called it.
Dwyre’s power and money came from a family business that had grown into a multinational company, Dwyre Ash & Mineral, Co. of Canada. Founded in 1887, DAMCO was the clever invention of her grandfather, a bitter Scot stranded in Western Canada, whose tenacity was fueled by a kind of rage at everything English, and Kimberly Dwyre was its inheritor. By the time Kimberly was born, the lucky oldest girl in a family bereft of sons, rage had been bled out of the family by fifty years of uninterrupted success. Shortly before she turned forty, the death of her father brought her in from the fields to the boardroom of DAMCO, where she had steered the company, now, for almost two decades.
Kimberly enjoyed power, and she took to business well. She first met Fielding very late one night at a depressing party in Seattle and was hooked by the young man’s weary, sardonic wit. Fielding’s displeasure at his station in life amused them both. It was as little more than a whim, that Dwyre forged Fielding’s signature on a minor document at DAMCO, USA, in Seattle, so that the sale of a small parcel of industrial land put $300,000 into her friend’s bank account, and the conversation about San Miguel soon followed.
Fielding was never rich like Dwyre, but he’d always been lucky. A lifetime of charm amongst the affluent middle class of Seattle had accustomed him to the pleasures of what he called “the surplus economy.” He never planned his summers because something was always floating his way. Like the pampered prize steer who is kept in clover (until he’s finally shown the horrible face of the butcher’s block), Fielding took this latest avalanche of good fortune in stride. In San Miguel he began his days with coffee on the zócalo, the main square, and a short stroll to the posh headquarters of DAMCO, Mexico. There he spent an hour or two sifting through the mail and sending out party invitations, before returning to the zócalo for lunch, comida. He was never sure exactly what his job was, though the office’s warren of fax machines and telephones was busy enough to make it clear that something important was happening at DAMCO, Mexico.
That something was NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement. When Kimberly Dwyre saw the first wave of new trade treaties begin to swing the doors to Mexico open in the early 1990s she had marched DAMCO in as fast and far as was legally possible. She had her eye on the dormant silver and gold mines of the state of Guanajuato. “Retirement” in San Miguel was neither a whim nor any kind of retirement. It was a shrewdly calculated move to get a toehold on the same mines that had once powered the Spanish conquest of the Americas. Most of the mines only produced tourism now, but Dwyre was gambling that new technologies could wring yet another empire out of an absurdly rich land whose inheritors had never been determined enough to exploit it.
Fielding knew his friend well enough to see this bulky, submerged purpose beneath the surface, but he also knew himself well enough not to care. And so it had gone for a dozen unremarkable years. Until one day that summer when “retirement” came to an abrupt end with a long text message from Dwyre. There was no more job and his house was no longer his, but another house, a much nicer one, as well as the income that had come with his job awaited him a short drive away in Guanajuato. The text was emotionless and clear, like the surface of everything Dwyre offered. Rather than putting an end to their long friendship, the message was meant to do the opposite, extend their bond indefinitely into the future. And it did.
Fielding was wistful, but in truth San Miguel had grown spoiled and stale. Like the first move to Mexico, a dozen years before, the jump to Guanajuato was for them both. Fielding had always boasted that he could win a chair in Guanajuato’s small orchestra. And Dwyre praised the storied city as “more serious” than golf-obsessed San Miguel. She had bought a sprawling ranch in nearby Santa Rosa where she was building an absurd hacienda in which she now spent the bulk of her time. In Guanajuato, Fielding would see more of his friend, and, free of the old “job,” he would have time to pay attention to what he cared about most…music, art, power, and people. Tonight it was the Barkers, and those pushy women from Seattle who interested him because they were looking for Rebecca. Poor, lost Rebecca.
* * *
Fielding was installed in an enviable casita at the city’s center, on the crowded hill just behind the busy Jardin de la Union. The funicular ran past his garden wall, an unlikely glass box of tourists heaving up and down the steep incline every few minutes, tracing a straight line from the baroque Teatro Juarez, below, to the sweeping vistas at the statue of El Pipila, above. The funicular was never noisy, certainly less noisy than everything else in Guanajuato, and Fielding soon grew to enjoy the curious stares of strangers moving slowly past with their digital cameras, peering in at his overgrown gardens. His terrace faced the other direction, and it was to the terrace that he brought guests before dinner, to sip wine as the city came sparkling to life below and the sun cast its glorious last rays on the crest of the cerro de Serena, opposite.
The ladies from Seattle, who were returning to Guanajuato for their third “season” (four months of each year, January-April), managed to elicit an invitation from Fielding just before their yoga class; and by the time they had showered and powdered, they were running late. Arriving at Casita Pochote, they found Fielding well into a bottle of Baja nebiollo with the unlikely Barkers out on the terrace.
“I had been paying through the nose up at that strip mall,” Fielding trailed on, rising from his chair. “What is it called? San Javier? But then I found this marvelous wholesaler in Marfil…Ah, dear ladies!” He began loping toward the archway they had just passed under, bounding like a lugubrious dog, and caught them before they’d made it more than a few feet onto the terrace. “Bienvenidos a mi casita.” The ladies offered him their cheeks, but Fielding grandly swept their hands up instead and planted his wet kisses there. The Barkers rose from their chairs. “You know the Barkers I believe.” He gestured vaguely toward the vista.
“Our first Mexican friends,” the older one confirmed. The Barkers were from Toronto. It took some time for the devotedly slow ladies to find their way into the Barkers’ waiting embrace. “Three seasons past, though it hardly seems that long. Vera.” They hugged, and then paused as they withdrew, touching each other’s heads, nitpicking the matching silvery bowls. “Shane.” This hug was colder, only habitual. The older lady always led, like a great weather front that could not be redirected, and her friend followed, always quiet and with a settled warmth and ease that was the reward one got for waiting through the leading edge of the storm. The group arranged itself around the low castiron table that held, now, two bottles of wine and five Riedel glasses.
This was not Fielding’s good wine. The good wine stayed in the cave, reserved for guests who would know. This was an entirely decent Mexican nebiollo, unusual enough to make the night seem special, but not something rare that would be wasted passing over the dull tongues of his ignorant guests. Vera knew the difference, and she knew Fielding well enough to flash him a silent grimace, unnoticed by her husband, Shane, when the nebiollo appeared. It was one gesture in an endless conversation the two kept going over the head of indifferent Shane for as long as they had been friends.
Vera and Fielding shared a certain restless interest in the misery of others, especially the fine grain of social warfare, a skill Vera had mastered in the incestuous art scene of Toronto. She had fled from there ten years ago with her mousy, inoffensive husband in tow. Guanajuato was to be their refuge, their retirement from work they had succeeded at, and cared little enough about to leave with no regrets. But Vera could never give up her avocation, which was gossip and ridicule.
She resembled a spear, thin to the point of grotesqueness, but with a disarmingly wide face, so that one was always drawn into the great distance between her brown eyes. Fielding thought her face resembled a thinly covered pit, such as one jungle animals might plunge into, unawares. In San Miguel he had watched her make a fool of his best friend, Kimberly Dwyre, on the flower-bedecked dais of a film festival, a stage that had been set so that Dwyre could shine. As was her custom, Dwyre had paid an enormous amount of money to bring a prepackaged Festival de Cinéma Français to San Miguel, slapping her company’s name on it so the tough, gristly meat of DAMCO’s actual business might be softened under a small pool of cultural gravy. Vera, with her Toronto pedigree, was given the title of “Director of Festival,” an honorific whose only attendant duty was to conduct a public interview with “Festival Founder, Kimberly Dwyre.”
Kimberly had no time for any of it and asked Vera to bring some clips from one of the scheduled films so they could just chat on the fly; they’d rely on the clips to carry the day. “Make it something…literary,” Dwyre suggested, imagining Proust. Vera chose Germinal, the grueling Émile Zola novel about the living hell of coalmining in France. Gerard Depardieu had adapted it to film. As Dwyre watched clip after clip of horrifying asphyxiations and living burials, Vera asked if she would comment on Zola’s famous realism, and whether Dwyre thought it had made it through onto the screen. Did she think Zola’s description of the slow receding of consciousness in a trapped coalminer—which Vera read out loud, at great length—was accurate; or did the film’s enactment of the same horrible death provide a better picture? “…Harold, be a dear and run that clip again….”
This kind of public humiliation might appear to be pure malice, but for Vera it was much colder than that. It was sport. She liked Dwyre very much, even admired her (the feeling was, oddly, mutual) but this particular opportunity was too rich. Dwyre could afford to have her pants pulled down in public. And the company deserved it. They were hypocrites.
Dwyre bore it well. She listened until Vera stopped, then brought out the customary fuzzy tales of her Grandfather bestowing Scottish thrift and social justice on the primitive Tsimshian Indians whom he employed in the mines of Western Canada; Doogan Dwyre had built them a hospital and schools. Zola became a mere backdrop for this familiar heroic narrative of neoliberalism—Dwyre’s religion—in which the capitalist-driven tide of growth sweeps away old national and cultural boundaries to irrigate otherwise backwards civilizations with education, health care, and a better income. Never mind the tired old 19th century…Monsou didn’t need a worker’s uprising, but a corporate takeover by more enlightened capitalists from North America.
It was that same evening that Vera first met the two ladies from Seattle. In the crowded hall, before the spectacle had faded from memory, they made their way to Vera to thank her for her “wise courage.” “We,” the older one said, and here a sweeping gesture brought her friend into the plural pronoun, “have always believed you must speak truth to power.” Vera was delighted by their stern admiration, though she had no interest in anything so burdensome or fickle as “the truth.” She simply wanted to make Dwyre squirm. “Thank you,” she answered in all sincerity. “I saw the chance and I took it; as any of us would.”
The sun was gone from the flanks of the cerro de Serena, now pale in moonlight. Fielding rang a small bell, and an older Mexican woman appeared with a tray of appetizers, antojitos. She set them on the low table, beside the wine, and smiled at Vera. “I see you’ve brought Teresa with you,” Vera observed. Teresa had been Fielding’s cook in San Miguel.
“Actually, Kimberly brought her,” Fielding said, waving the woman away. “She cooks out in Santa Rosa.”
“The hacienda? I hear it’s palatial.”
“It’s absurd, but Teresa has never lived so well. I think she’s going to move the rest of her family in. Kimberly will never know.”
“It’s that big?”
“Not that she would care. She likes to give people things.” …this house for one, he thought, glancing at Vera, who was kind enough to keep the same thought to herself. The salt was already in the wound. “How nice she could give you Teresa,” Vera said instead.
“Yes. I’m just borrowing her for the evening.”
“Like old times.”
“Old times.” Fielding raised his glass, beckoning his guests. The small group drew close to toast their divergent memories. They weren’t strangers to each other, yet what they imagined as they drank did not accord in the least. The older lady recalled the night Vera shamed Kimberly Dwyre into donating a headquarters to the Friends of the Animals. She egged on Dwyre’s lavish descriptions of the good works of her grandfather, and then asked straight out for the building she’d had her eye on in Guanajuato. It was high stakes social gamesmanship at its best…The younger one’s memory was a gauzy picture of Guanajuato from above, a birds-eye view at dusk, peppered with earnest deeds and placid brown faces at great enough distance to never resolve properly into focus…Fielding saw Vera at a party, through a partly closed door, chewing on pills and secreting another woman’s credit card in the sweaty nylon of her panties…Shane saw Toronto, and a time before he had met these people. Old times. Vera’s thoughts alone stayed firmly locked on the present and on Fielding. What could he possibly have in mind, inviting these two unimportant women to dinner?
Teresa called them to the table and Fielding charged in ahead. Vera glimpsed him through the archway, a tall, awkward figure, like a paperclip that had been worried almost to the point of breaking, as he bent over the sideboard to inspect the bottles of wine. Teresa had cooked a puerco pasilla that filled the house with its sweet, smoky aroma, and Vera’s mouth watered as she sat down at the heavy, wooden table. Steam rose from a stack of fresh tortillas in a straw basket. Fielding peered closely at the wines and swapped one out for something…well, something worse, probably. He turned the bright lights off so the soft glow of candles filled the room, and guided the ladies to their chairs before taking his own place with his back to the view. Behind him, the city sparkled in the night.
Vera admired his studied look of dishevelment, the thick dark hair always floppy and out of place, shirt tails untucked, or, better still, only partly untucked to show the peculiar belt buckles he favored. He had mastered this “look” of disinterest in having a look, and about that, as about all appearances, he was fastidious. Fielding smiled as he filled the ladies’ glasses with the vile wine. Vera reached to the sideboard for a shot of tequila, the Corralejo blue. It’s fiery kick wrapped like a warm blanket around the delightful smoke of the pasilla. Shane tucked silently into a thick, doubled-up tortilla filled with the meat and Teresa’s richly larded refritos, as Fielding passed the little dishes around. The ladies didn’t eat pork. Fielding paid no mind to their sad steaming plates of pale tortillas.
“Did you get Marie’s casita again?” He asked, recalling the ladies’ pleasurable residence at a friend’s apartment on a steep alleyway, a callejon, near the university. “She’s cleaned up that awful business with the Dog Pack, hasn’t she?”
“Marie is working with dogs?” Asked the older lady, sprinkling a bit of salt on her tortilla. “Is it the Friends of the Animals?”
“We adore the Friends of the Animals,” the younger one affirmed. “We worked there with Vera.”
“Oh these ones aren’t animals at all, dear,” Vera corrected. “These were drug addicts who found their way into Marie’s somehow. Just horrible, filthy beasts; their gang is Los Perros, I believe, which is what Eric means by the Dog Pack. ‘Los Perros Perdidos,’ isn’t that right? It’s not innocent dogs in need of a home at all, but awful criminals.”
“But we’ve just moved our things in and…and there don’t seem to be any…needles or paraphernalia or whathave-you.”
“Drug addicts? How very tragic.”
“They should all be shot,” Vera got out between swallows of stew.
“They probably were,” Fielding added, grimly. “The police are not kind in Guanajuato.”
“No,” Vera nodded. “No they are not. I’m surprised those addicts had the gumption to break in in the first place. They usually keep to the lesser colonias.” Fielding watched as the younger lady sat staring at her plate blankly, and he felt ghoulish for having brought this up at all. He had forgotten how delicate these stern-seeming women could be. And on their first night back.
“Oh, now we’ve gone and frightened you.” Fielding gave a warm pat to the arm of the younger one who looked up and smiled at him weakly. “It’s not at all the way we make it sound, you realize that. It’s just Vera and I, with our wicked imaginations.” He glanced sternly at Vera who rolled her eyes. “She calls them a ‘drug gang,’ but it’s really just the neighbor boys on the callejon.” The ladies looked to Vera, but she had her back turned, reaching for the tequila. “You probably gave them candies last year. Now they’ve gotten to the age where candy gives way to beer and an unlocked door is an invitation to a party.”
“They might have been boys,” Vera allowed, “but that was certainly some kind of party. How many weeks? I don’t think it was only beer.”
“Marie spoke to their parents, I think she told me. It was just one incident, during the summer holiday. And the boys are all back in school now, back on track.”
“And she had that room gutted too, didn’t she dear?” Vera drawled to Fielding. “The vomit smell is completely gone. Shane did all the tile work.”
“Gutted? Which room?”
“‘Gutted’ is an awfully strong word, Vera. The whole town has been fixing up, as I understand it. Marie is certainly not alone.” Teresa brought in a tray of large clay pots, each steaming with the exhalations of some delightful main dish, the guisados. There was a colorful green and yellow rajas, long strips of fire-roasted poblano peppers with corn in a light buttery sauce; fatty pork short ribs, the pepper-rubbed meat falling off the smooth, short bone of the cortillo; and Teresa’s famous mole, dark brown and sweet, speckled with pale sesame seeds, which she ladled over plump, meaty legs of chicken.
It was far more than anyone could eat, but this excess was a part of Fielding’s planned ritual. Every guest would go away carrying one of his trademark los muertos bolsas, woven bags sporting ghoulish “Day of the Dead” skeletons, filled to the brim with wine and Teresa’s remarkable food. (He bought the cheap woven plastic bags by the hundred in Irapuato.)
It was a self-styled “potlatch,” as he liked to call it. All the gringos in Guanajuato seemed to be from Seattle and “the Northwest” (he had no idea why), and this had given him the idea. He would be a kind of great chief arriving to greet them with a lavish, serial potlatch. It would announce his standing. The potlatch was typical Fielding, researched down to the last absurd detail. Each bolsa included two marvelously embroidered cloth napkins from San Juan de la Paz, Chichimeca handiwork, that Teresa folded as if they were tiny trade blankets. While the allusions were wasted on nearly everyone except Kimberly Dwyre (she was amused), the generosity was not. His guests went away glad at the prospect of seeing Fielding again, and aware of a certain unspecific debt.
On the potlatch evenings, Fielding’s happy guests would poke and pick at the many colorful dishes, assembling small tacos, trying them with the various wines and beers, as the hours ambled by in pleasant but purposeful conversation. Fielding would alternately flatter and interrogate them, mentally filling in the details of his massive social “spread sheet.” This night, though, was less purposeful; Fielding already knew everything he needed to about Vera and Shane; and the ladies were only there so he could talk about Rebecca, a subject he had been saving for dessert.
“Since you ladies don’t eat meat,” Fielding offered as the meal wound down, “we’ll send you home with all the rajas and some mangoes, too. Last of the season, and very, very fresh.” Vera adored the rajas and mangoes (which were nearly impossible to find at this time of year) and Fielding watched with a warm glow of amusement as she pretended not to care.
“Lupe got us some divine mangoes, from Morelia,” Vera said, casually. “She has family there. They brought them especially and kept them on ice for the whole bus ride.”
Fielding remembered these mangoes. They were excellent. Vera had shown them off when they arrived, and that had been over two months ago, when mangoes were not so rare. He looked at her, smug about her weak boast, but didn’t twist the knife. “That Lupe is a treasure,” he said instead. “I could give up Teresa if you gave me Lupe.” The idea was absurd, for obvious reasons, but also because Lupe had been dirt poor when Vera “discovered her” selling gorditas on the Plaza de los Baratillo. She was a remarkable cook who actually began to make fusion-style guisados to court the growing gringo market for the cheap, Mexican street food. Rather than allow this unusual amenity to persist as a public offering, Vera paid Lupe to close up shop and move in with her fulltime. That was nearly seven years ago. Vera’s largesse, generous by local standards, had brought Lupe’s extended family out of poverty and put her sons through Catholic school. One was graduating in architecture, this very month, from the prestigious department at the University of Guanajuato. Lupe would sooner go to her grave, under Vera’s watchful eye—happily, devotedly—than take up with another household.
“Does Marie pay for a maid?” Fielding asked the tired ladies. “I mean for her renters?”
“Oh, we’re not very comfortable with servants,” the younger one said. “We don’t like the politics of it.”
“There are no politics about having a maid in Mexico,” Vera pooh-poohed. “If you pay them decently, they’re grateful to have the work. Everyone has a maid here. Even the maids have maids, so they can go to their jobs.”
“I don’t like paying someone else do work that I’m unwilling to do myself,” the older one explained, repeating the cant of her friends in Seattle. “And it’s easy enough for us to keep house.” Vera took the long pause here as a kind of accusation, a change of mood that quickened her interest; but in fact it was just the older lady’s fatigue, and this disappointed her. “A maid would be pure indulgence for us, and not the sort of relationship we want.”
“That’s precisely what Rebecca used to say,” Fielding put in. “She wanted me to ‘release’ Teresa, is how she put it. ‘Give the woman her dignity back.’ As if I had that to give.”
“Oh, Rebecca,” Vera sighed. “She’s a bitter little pill.” Confident of Fielding’s confederacy on the question of Rebecca, Vera did not see the flash of anger her gratuitous meanness brought to his face. As quickly as it appeared, he erased it and pretended not to have heard her. “You mean
Rebecca Osorio?” The sweet younger lady asked. “We don’t know her…” And here she cast around silently for some kind of permission.
“…but we’re hoping tomeet her,” the older one finished. “We’d like to help out with her campesino project.” Teresa had placed a marvelous, jiggling flan at the center of the table and was now dealing with the French press on the sideboard. Fielding met Vera’s gaze and mirrored her flat implacable look of disbelief. Leave it to the ladies from Seattle to describe Rebecca’s cowardly retreat to Santa Rosa as “her campesino project.”
He got up from his place to help Teresa with the coffee. “You ladies take decaf, am I right? Tell me more about this project. I’ve never heard of it.”
The older one straightened herself as her friend shrank back in deference. “Pacifica Radio had a long interview with her, from up in the hills, where, as I understand it, she’s moved to work with the campesinos.”
Fielding brought the steaming mugs to the table with a small pot of yellowish, clotted cream. “How utterly fascinating. I knew she had moved”—this was an extreme bit of understatement; Rebecca Osorio had in fact taken refuge with Fielding for several weeks after leaving her famous husband, an ambitious Guanajuatense politician, and before moving (fleeing, as Fielding would have it) to a rustic hut near Santa Rosa, rather than deal with the mess she had made—“but I had no idea it was for such altruistic purposes.”
The ladies nodded vigorously. “Yes, yes. She’s working with a community of Indians out there, helping them with agriculture and some kind of mat making. That’s what the radio said, anyway.”
“Indians? Near Santa Rosa. I wonder who it could be?” Fielding kept a tumultuous storm of mixed feelings buried inside himself as he stirred a great heaping spoonful of sugar into his coffee.
“They must mean Juanito and his awful family,” Vera speculated. “Didn’t she move in with Juanito? He’s Indian, or partly, anyway. They certainly don’t know a thing about agriculture, unless its pot they’re talking about.”
The older lady frowned. “I don’t think that’s what they meant.”
“I’m afraid Vera’s right,” Fielding countered. “These ‘friends’ in Santa Rosa are not an admirable bunch. I’ve visited her out there myself.” Vera’s sharply arched brow told Fielding he should be careful not to expose too much of himself. “I took some mail out to her, that’s all; various things that had been forwarded after she left her husband. There’s just no other way to get things to her; you have to walk out and find her.”
“You know about her husband, don’t you?” Vera asked the ladies. “The future president of Mexico. Everyone says so. He’s PAN’s new golden boy. And he still refuses to acknowledge that she’s left him.”
“Yes, but the radio said it was a kind of political divorce, that she left him expressly because of his bad politics.”
“That’s what we admire in her.”
“That the personal is always the political.”
“The radio described this Santa Rosa as some endangered puebla that he’d signed over to the multinationals…a communally owned sacred place.”
“What a load of shit.” Vera.
“Is that what Rebecca said? I mean, on the radio?” Fielding asked.
“No, I don’t think so. Maybe it was described in the papers that way. Whatever it is, we’re interested in visiting and helping her…work…the land.”
“The radio said they needed water.”
“Well, an aqueduct to bring water.”
“That’s right. The water is already there…”
“…but not near enough for them to work with. If they can work the land, they can keep ownership under Mexico’s ejido laws.”
“We’re actually bringing some water.”
“Well, its real water, but not very much of it. The Olympia C.I. cell asked if we would deliver some of their water, as a symbol of solidarity with the campesinos.”
“It’s pure artesian water, from their community free well.” The younger lady pulled a great glass jar from their bag of soiled yoga sweats. “Apparently it’s delicious.” Vera and Fielding stared blankly at the jar, which was full of a clear liquid. “What is her house like?” For a few long moments Fielding and Vera were silent, overwhelmed by the absurdity of a half-gallon jar of artesian well water that had somehow made it from Olympia, Washington, to the city of Guanajuato to win the day for indigenous land rights.
“Her house?” Vera finally let out.
“Oh it hardly looks like anything,” Fielding filled in. “It’s a lot of stuck together mud and scrap, like most places out there. You wouldn’t know anyone was even living there if you hadn’t been told.”
“How do we find it?”
Their tongues loosened by a little wine and the excitement, the ladies talked on and on about “the struggle” until finally it was very late and they left, forgetting their smelly sweat clothes and the great jar of water. No matter, Fielding would give it back to them in the morning, before their pointless trip into the hills. Vera and Shane hung on until midnight because Vera was fishing around for a clue about Rebecca. She’d always presumed it was Dwyre who had offered Casita Pochote’s guest apartment to Rebecca, but now she wondered if Fielding himself might have been the one to suggest it. How odd, to imagine Fielding having feelings about Rebecca. On its face it was absurd, but Vera knew him well, and she knew his pretended neutrality about “politics,” (what did that word even mean?) was just a habitual screen hiding convictions she could only guess at. Fielding did have a sentimental streak, after all. Maybe he pitied Rebecca.
Alone, finally, as the clock turned past one and the incessant pounding of a salsa band at Las Damas de las Camelias soaked the terrace in its hideous rhythms, Fielding took refuge in the densely overgrown gardens on the funicular side. It was dark there, and the city was quieter. He sat, watching the night recede into a decorative background, and sank deeper and deeper into himself. Rather than going out, he would go in…back into that warren of rooms with its cluttered residue of a disjointed life, its perilous stacks of boxes, unfinished works, its collection of beetles, hauled sadly around since childhood, its text books and charts and pinned butterflies and all of the detritus of Kimberly Dwyre’s life that had leaked into his, flooding him. Eric Fielding slipped through the shadowed frame of the casita’s door, into this labyrinth of hallways and rooms, slipping away, away…back into himself.
Lynne, thank you for posting it. Matthew Stadler — thank you for writing it and permitting NC to post it.
Thanks for checking it out, Diane. The whole idea of writing a cover of another book is an interesting statement about authorship. I think that it is a courageous move. In the Author’s Notes, Matthew Stadler says, “…authorship can be, as it is here, simply a whole-hearted devotion of time and attention to the space of composition. Authorship is not self-expression. It is participation in something that precedes and survives us.”
Having briefly worked on an irrigation project in the hills around Guanajuato back in the early ’90s, and having attended a few gringo dinners like this, I had an uncomfortably pleasant sense of dejavu while reading it. A wonderfully rendered peek into expatriate life. Thank you for posting it.