In the Palace of Cortés by Clifford Garstang

He has a second tequila, a double, and Alexis still has not returned. He’s in shadow now, the sun having crept behind the café, so the air around him is cooler. But inside he’s warm. He imagines his body’s core, like the bubbling center of the earth, and that makes him think of eruptions and that causes him look to where the volcano, El Popo, should be. But he can’t see it from here, because of the yellow tree and the Palacio, and he has to imagine it, a white wisp at the peak, smoke, or a cloud, he isn’t sure. He stands, as if with the additional height he’ll have a view of the mountain, and momentarily loses his balance. He laughs as he plops back into his chair. He rises again, this time with a grip on the table. Wouldn’t it be funny, he thinks, if I’m gone when she gets back? She’ll panic and I’ll swoop in to save the day. Even better than telling her what to wear. He chuckles, glances around to see if anyone has heard, then enters the Plaza de Armas to find a good spot.

He chooses a bench facing the café and in sight of the Palacio so he’s confident he won’t miss Alexis. He pictures her coming to find him, dazed from the museum, and he almost feels sorry for the turmoil his prank will cause. All his life he has wanted this, a beautiful woman who is utterly dependent on him, who is lost without him. It’s what holds families together. Lives that are too separate, like his parents’, vested with too much independence, are empty. Those marriages fall apart, but he thinks he and Alexis might be ready to take their relationship to the next level.

Behind the bench, under the yellow tree, a conversation has grown heated. There are several voices, at least four, but he can’t take his eyes off the café to count so he’s not sure. He hears one woman, an older man whose voice is hoarse, thickened, Nick imagines, by cigarettes and pulque, and maybe two other men, both younger. Nick’s Spanish is fractured, summoned from distant high school drills, and he is surprised that he understands snippets of what he hears. The woman, apparently, wants to stage a demonstration against the new mayor in their village, an hour’s drive from Cuernavaca. “The election was stolen,” the old man says. “A demonstration isn’t enough.” “But—” begins the woman. “Fuck demonstrations!” says one of the younger men. “Viva la revolucción!” says the other.

The argument continues and Nick realizes he’s taken his eyes off the café. What if she’s already come back and he didn’t see her? He’s only playing a little joke, to show her how reliant on him she is. He doesn’t really want to frighten her, he’s not that cruel. For the first time he worries that he’s gone too far. It’s one thing for her to be upset with him, maybe without even realizing why. He knows that’s the power he has over her and he knows how to channel her anger into pleasure for them both. But the anguish, the fear of losing him, of being on her own in this country she didn’t want to visit in the first place, that’s another kind of pain that he doesn’t mean to inflict. It might even drive her away. That’s what real pain does, and that’s not what he wants at all. He feels a bit of panic of his own.

Hoping she’s still in the museum, he runs across the street. Then he remembers his plan to buy the balloon and he runs back to the park, pays the kid 15 pesos for a smiley face, and then back again to the Palacio. He pays another 30 pesos to enter and then realizes he won’t find her. It’s a big place, with displays spread over three floors and dozens of galleries, from the earliest days of the Spanish conquest and the conversion of the Indians, right up to a photography exhibit of poverty in present-day Cuernavaca. But there’s chronology on his side, a logic to the installation, and he races time to catch up.

He hurries past suits of armor, mannequins in burnished silver, ornate swords and pistols. He barely notices bejeweled crucifixes and dark portraits of bearded priests. On the second floor balcony, he is stopped. Not by the security guard, who only raises her eyebrows when she sees the smiley face balloon, but by the mural covering the whole back wall of the building. He recognizes the work of Diego Rivera; its bright colors and crowded scenes speak to him, humanity captured in the anguished faces of his subjects. First, at one end, the conquistadors battle Indians and the jungle itself, and join with the church to enslave the people, who are driven deeper into poverty and despair. Nick can almost hear them weeping.

Now, though, he recognizes the voices of the villagers from the Plaza arguing still about the stolen election and he is startled to see them in the painting, just at the point in Rivera’s timeline when the revolution begins. The woman—she stands erect and noble, with a mane of black hair—shakes a fist at the old man. The two younger men, both draped with bandoliers, carry rifles. Fires burn in the hills, like so many stars in the night sky; smoke and the demoralizing scent of charred flesh settle over the plundered fields. Men dressed as jaguars rip meat from the bones of the Spanish soldiers. Nick is disoriented, uncertain of the way forward in time. There is shouting, shots fired, villagers running for their lives, and Nick crouches behind a scorched wall. Time stops. He is trembling, hot and cold at the same time. He smells death. He hears the sobs of old women. He tastes dust.

And now enters a man in white, a thick black moustache splitting his face in two. Nick recognizes this man. He is Zapata, hero to the peasants. He carries a machete in one hand and leads a majestic white stallion. The campesinos follow him. The angry woman bows before him. The old man nods respectfully. The two younger men salute, their weapons clutched to their chests. A girl embraces Nick, pours wine for him. He drinks. The wine is bitter and rough. Shouts erupt from the village followed by an endless stream of men and women, barefoot children, and a menagerie of dogs and chickens and goats. Viva Zapata! Viva la Revolucción!

More shots are fired from the crowd, celebratory now, punctuating the cheers. Nick joins the shouting, his fist in the air. Viva Zapata! And Nick realizes that the balloon, the yellow smiley face, has been punctured and hangs, deflated, at his side. He remembers now why he’s come here and when he does, with his purpose firmly in mind, Alexis appears. She’s grown taller, assured, her head high. Stroking the snout of Zapata’s horse, she again glares at Nick, daring him to move, to command her. But he’s surrounded. Villagers hold him at bay with pitchforks. Calm descends, the battle is over. He is lost.

Nick finds his way out of the Palacio. His head drones, like a hive of bees, and his teeth taste of salt and dirt. The museum is dark and he wonders how long he’s been inside the mural. The guard at the exit, whose mustache reminds him of Zapata’s, stares at him, blinking, and looks down at the lifeless balloon. If he speaks, Nick cannot hear.

Outside, the air carries the rumble of thunder. Or is it the volcano? Or drums? As he crosses the street, dodging traffic, the chill surrounds him like smoke and he can feel it in his pockets, up the sleeves and down the neck of his t-shirt, stuck to his skin like blood.

At the Café Hidalgo Alexis is sipping tequila. Nick sits. She won’t look at him, and he wonders how to begin. He settles his hand onto hers. She pulls away.

Is this his fault? Has he done something wrong? The balloon, now completely flat, its smile dusty, lies at their feet. He ties the balloon’s string around her wrist. He tries to speak but there are no words. He was only trying to amuse her, to guide her. To bring her with him into the future. Was that such a terrible thing?

Alexis looks at him. He sees nothing in her eyes, no panic, no doubt. He is shivering in the cool night.

“It’s cold,” he says.

“Yes,” she says. She offers him her glass.

Grateful, he inhales the smoky fumes of the tequila, sees the agave plants in the hot, arid countryside, defiant Mexican peasants battling for freedom and dignity.

He raises the glass to his lips. He drinks.





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Clifford Garstang



© 2005-2009 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas

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