THE COLLECTOR AND THE BLIND GIRL
by Geoff Hargreaves
“Anderson is dead.” I told them the plain truth plainly. But it wasn’t my fault he was dead. No, not really, no way. I’d done my very best to keep him alive. I had, I had, honestly. Believe me, guys. I was explaining this for the umpteenth time to the members of the agency, in the lean hope that they’d stop blaming me, when a sharp clangor interrupted my gush of words and woke me.
My cell phone was ringing with the first bars of “Happy Days Are Here Again.”. The numbers on the clock beside my bed glowed bright green: 6:05. Daylight hadn’t yet started to whiten the windows.
It was Tompkins calling. Or has he put it: Primrose (his cryptonym) for Pinocchio (my cryptonym, assigned by Primrose). “What is it now?” I said, with the sweaty bed sheets and tee shirt clinging to me. “I’m sick, real sick.” (I was still loyally wearing a Seattle Mariners tee shirt instead of a pajama top, though I hadn’t seen a game for over two years.)
All night I’d been convinced, as I tossed and shivered, that some bug I’d picked up on the mission to Michoacán had regained the strength to persecute me. I’d had vivid flashbacks of waiting for daylight in the jungle, propped against a fallen tree that had re-sprouted from suckers. I dreamed that I was observing Anderson, my colleague, moan and tremble beside me. In the distance lay a green lake, half-swathed in thin mist. I could hear my pursuers getting closer and closer, crashing triumphantly through the dense vegetation. My legs had turned to jelly.
Tompkins was not at all convinced about the bug eating at my body. He reminded me that the tests conducted at the American British Medical Center in Mexico City on my return from the jungle had all proved negative. If there was anything wrong with me, it was my own doing. “Overburdened liver, that’s all,” he snapped. “You’ve been pigging out on all that spicy junk. So out of bed, you layabout, and get on with the job you were sent to do!”
I might have resented the clipped brutality of his remarks, if I hadn’t had stronger reasons to resent him.
He wanted results, he said. I needed to get moving, he said. Fast. I mustn’t lose momentum. Make contact with Bombyx (meaning my target, Felipe Ataf). I must remember that my watchword was: Can do. “We’re relying on you, Pinocchio,” he continued in his military jargon, “for superhigh-resolution situational awareness, and all we’ve got so far is what our friend Bombyx eats for breakfast. And not even a best-guess estimate on his favorite dessert!”
“Well, I can’t do much right now,” I told him. “This fever has kept me in bed since yesterday afternoon, sweating my butt off.”
“Your job is to locate, combine, and digest mission-critical information prior to the operation, and how do you think you can you do that, if you’re playing dog in the blanket? How many times do you need to be told that our first line of attack and defense is knowledge, hard facts?”
“Give me a break, will you?” I pleaded. “I’m not doing this intentionally. If I could get onto my feet, I would. I’d be more than happy to get out of this sweaty hell.”
“Frankly, Pinocchio, you’ve never convinced me,” he ranted on. “I think you’re in love with playing the part of an agent without being the part. In other words, you’ve been faking it, and now the truth is starting to show.”
“Hey, I’ll be as glad as you to be out of here . . . I want to nail the bastard as fast as I can . . . As soon as I stop shivering and can take a full breath, I will do it to your satisfaction. Now let me go back to sleep. For God’s sake, Primrose!”
His usual insistent self, he went on banging down on nails already driven home. “You can’t take your eye off the ball! If you lose it, you’ll have a hard-assed time getting it back. We’ve got to be alert at all times. We’re not dealing with a small-timer here. We always need to see what’s coming at us. You lounging in bed, farting in the sheets, gets us nowhere.”
“You’re acting like I have a magic wand,” I protested.
“Good God, man, Nancy Drew would have gotten farther than you by this time!” he barked, as he finished with me. “Let’s win this one!”
I felt I’d lost five pounds in the last eighteen hours. In the worst of the fever, I woke up, half-hanging out of the bed and seemed to slip outside of my body and observe myself from above, a sweating, writhing animal, snagged in the twisted sheets. To my own surprise, I had observed myself with a curious indifference, without pity, without concern, even without much interest.
When I sank back to sleep, I found myself at home, in downtown Port Townsend, not far from the harbor. There I encountered a water buffalo with a severe wound just above the wide splay of its left rear hoof. Leaving a trail of dark blood behind it, it came hobbling toward me, its head lowered by the weight of its massive curving horns. An unidentified voice told me it was my job to tend to the animal’s injured foot, but I was too terrified of the horns to approach it. I stood there uselessly, doing nothing. Then a woman, featureless enough to be any woman, showed up at my side and whispered, “Treat it just like any other animal.”
“You betcha, ma’am!” I replied skeptically. Unable to face the gaze of the suffering, terrifying animal, I shifted my eyes away from it and outwards to the sea. There the colorless rim of the horizon started to quiver, as though sky and sea were threatening to split apart and endless floods of darkness were impatient to pour into the gap. My screams at the impending danger tossed me into wakefulness.
Sweatier than ever, I decided I must look like a ghost. In the bathroom mirror I saw dark rings under my eyes and my color was greenish-white under a glaze of perspiration.
Then Tutupe the maid, a plump, elderly woman, arrived at the house, calling out, “Buen día, señor,” as she let herself in. Wrapped in my dressing gown, I went down into the living room and forced myself to eat a mango, an oatmeal cracker, and half an overripe, sickly sweet, black-bruised banana.
From somewhere close on the semicircle of hills behind the house, votive firecrackers started exploding like rapid gunfire. Each echoing bang, explained Tutupe, was a kiss for a local saint. “Sweet!” I said.
Finished with my breakfast, I suggested she wash the bed sheets.
Then I bathed and dressed. In the meantime, Tutupe had turned on the radio and it was playing pop music from northern Mexico, a percussion-dominated sound that, to my gringo ears, resembled a cutlery drawer being repeatedly wrenched open and slammed shut.
Still shivering now and then, I forced myself to go outside to the street. The sun was warm on my back. Woozily I strolled along the narrow, dusty sidewalk, dodging little heaps of fresh dog shit, and crossed into the park, descending a sloping path between lofty trees.
A group of seven or eight gringos sat in a ring near a dry fountain, taking a Spanish lesson from a tiny Mexican woman with a frail birdlike skull. Near the children’s playground a loudspeaker was playing ‘Stayin’ Alive’ by the Bee Gees. Under the gaze of watchful mothers, kids were sliding down a chute and digging in sand. Past them came a tall, skinny kid, hurtled along by three frisky beagles on leads, while he babbled into his cell phone. A woman in a gray overall was sweeping up fallen leaves with a twig broom. Crouched beside the sand pit, a young woman was gazing into a small hand mirror and plucking her eyebrows.
Life was apparently proceeding as normal, at least for others.
In the centre of the town I passed, with leaden feet, the house of Ignacio Allende, who had made an exemplary attempt, I’d learned from a guidebook, to wrest colonial Mexico from Spanish control. “Born here, famous everywhere,” declared the inscription over the arched doorway with its massive wooden door reinforced by iron studs. Everywhere? Okay, have it your way. I’d never heard of him before I came to this town on the high plateau of Mexico, but I was in no condition to argue with anyone.
By now it was way too late to find my target Ataf at the restaurant where he regularly ate breakfast. So I went down a side street into a second-hand store. The air was muggy and musty, and my delicate lungs reacted against it, but, like a dedicated collector, I stayed and browsed among the busts of ecclesiastics, fractured cartwheels, old stoves, armless wooden statues, tall, unsteady cupboards, and crude votive paintings thanking this saint or that for miraculous favors gratefully received.
A short, ill-shaven man, with his head far in advance of his hunched shoulders, emerged from the malodorous gloom, holding a half-eaten taco, and asked if he could help me.
“Yes,” I said. “I’m looking for old esposas.”
He laughed. “I prefer them young.”
The joke was a ritual I’d come to expect since the first time I looked for handcuffs in Mexico.
“Manillas,” I added with a patient smile, using a synonym.
“Oh, that kind of esposas!”
In Spanish, the word means both “wives” and “handcuffs.”
He shook his thick head of hair. “Nothing like that here, señor.”
“Where could I find them? Any ideas?”
“Maybe in Irapuato. Try Irapuato.” It was a city about an hour away.
“Thanks a bunch.”
“Nothing to thank me for, señor.”
I went back up the street. Bells were ringing between the pointed towers of the parish church. A gruff, black-bearded, barrel-chested man was hawking newspapers on the low wall that framed the gardens of the main square. Green-and-white taxis with big red numbers on their sides picked up fares. Pigeons and sparrows pecked at crumbs fallen from the tables of the outdoor cafes. A rich aroma of fried steak and garlic wafted by me. A shoeshine man asked me if I wanted my shoes polished, and I said, “Not today.” A group of pale-faced vacationers had gathered for a guided tour. A disarmingly young cop, his collar two sizes too large, was uncertainly clutching a rifle, as he surveyed the street from the corner of the portico. He carried handcuffs in the back pocket of his trousers. I stood behind him to check them out. By the look of them, Smith and Wesson. The cop swung around nervously. I smiled at him and wished him a good day. Yes, life was normal. The only thing that was abnormal was the way I felt.
Not knowing what else to do, I went back to the house, where Tutupe had changed the sheets. I sent her away early and got back into the bed.
At seven-fifteen that evening, feeling more like my old self, I strolled, in the gathering darkness, past a gigantic, almost empty parking lot, and entered a church annex, large enough to accommodate four rows of folding chairs under its vaulted brick roof. I paid twenty pesos to watch actors read from scripts on a slightly raised platform. I sat next to a tall guy with blue, ox-like eyes, flabby cheeks, and full, blubbery lips.
At the end of the first act, he turned to me and said in a dry tone, “Did you hear a strange noise during the performance?”
I said I hadn’t noticed anything.
“I did. It was the author turning over in his grave.”
“Is he dead?” I asked innocently.
“If he isn’t, he’s wishing he was.”
During the intermission we went outside onto the lawn. Insects were chirping abrasively in the bushes.
“Jacob, Jake,” he said by way of introduction.
“Michael, Mike,” I said.
We shook hands.
Over the rooftops the floodlit spires and domes of churches gleamed in the darkness. A solitary church bell clanged challengingly through the sultry air.
“You’ve got strong opinions, Jake,” I said. “You a critic or something?”
“Used to be at UCLA,” he said sourly, his eyes darting now to my left, now to my right. “Not now. Life’s too short to be squandered on, well—a chancy vocation like that.”
“You didn’t like the academic life?”
“I hated the eternal need to find something different to say! All those cheap promises you have to make to deliver a unique and timely revaluation of a key work that has been misunderstood, misinterpreted, and woefully neglected by your rivals in the field.”
“Not a heap of fun, eh?”
“How about you?”
“Oh, real estate, mostly,” I said, letting my voice tail off, to suggest I didn’t want to pursue the topic.
Inside the hall, lights flashed on and off to signal the approach of the second act.
“Well,” he said. “I must be getting back to my wife and warn her not to—tell her to stay home tomorrow night.”
“You’re married, are you?” Something in his manner had suggested to me that he was gay.
He gave me a challenging look. “Yes, as a matter of fact, I am. People tend to think—they assume I’m homosexual. But I’m not. Not a bit. Quite the opposite.”
I started to apologize. “I wasn’t assuming—” Though, really, I had been.
“That’s okay. I was making a general point. Believe me, it’s a hurdle I have to overcome constantly. With men I don’t want to know and with women I do.”
I thought he was leaving but he said, “Look, I belong to a men’s group. We meet on Thursdays for breakfast, ten o’clock—at the café just down from the Parish Church—talk about all sorts of things. Serious things. Not just brothels and baseball and horse-shit. It’s—we’re discussing Mexican history right now.”
“Thanks a lot, but I’m not much of a joiner, Jake.”
“Give it a try. You never know.” His eyes still refused to settle on me.
“Like I said, I’m not much of a joiner.”
“Sorry about that. But we haven’t introduced ourselves properly. Jake Plumley.”
We shook hands for a second time.
“Think about coming to breakfast, Michael Benhumea. It’s—you’ll find it—three doors down from the square, on your left.”
Then, switching on a flashlight, he took off down the sloping pathway and disappeared into the darkness. I went back into the hall to watch the second half of the show. I wanted to see how the storyline worked itself out.
Everybody died, it turned out, all except the protagonist’s solipsistic granny, half-crazy from the start, who was left occupying center-stage, alone and starry-eyed. Still in a pink nightdress, though it was supposedly mid-afternoon, she sang in a croaky voice a chorus of “Alice Blue Gown”, with her palms turned upwards before her stomach, the left hand resting on the right. Often breaking her words in the middle, she directed herself to an invisible and more appreciative audience than the one fidgeting in front of her, staring upwards to a row of mystical admirers floating weightlessly about ten feet off the ground.
“Oh, the feelings of pain and desolation!” said one man, as we left, picking our way out through the tangle of chairs.
“A simply unbearable experience,” added a woman ambiguously.
“That’s the whole point,” said another woman to another man. “The impossibility of articulating desire in its fullest dimension.”
“Right. I’d situate it in the apophatic tradition,” said a third, tiny, man to a third woman across the chest of the second. “We can only know what it isn’t. What it is, we can’t ever really say. And even then, only provisionally.”
A fourth man said, “My bum went to sleep and won’t wake up. But at least it didn’t snore. Those chairs are damn hard. Next time remind me to bring a cushion.”
Through the soft night air I retraced my steps back toward the house. Scattered flashes of lightning from a distant storm lit up the sky over the high hills. A cracked church bell emitted a sour peal.
At the exit of the parking lot stood a black Lincoln Town Car, its engine running. The driver was paying for the ticket. In the rear sat Ataf. We exchanged sudden, brief glances. His blade-cold eyes betrayed nothing. I’d met dozens of men like him before, when I was buying and selling property. They were both reserved and outgoing. While I was working on the deal, their easy-going chatter gave me the impression that I was learning things about their opinions and past, but, once the deal was done, I realized I knew nothing at all about them.
Immediately the car sped away, fast out of reach, inaccessible. With a sense of the imminent failure of my mission, I felt despondent and purposeless. I feared that Tompkins was hoping I’d fail. He wanted revenge, it was whispered. He wanted me dismissed from the agency for the loss of his best friend Anderson. Strictly speaking, my mission to bring Anderson back to safety had been a failure, but then again . . . Gossip said that Tompkins was going around claiming that Anderson had been a survivor from a heroic age living on into a later, smaller world. And, by inference, that smaller world meant me, crappy, little, peewee leaguer, Mike Benhumea, who couldn’t appreciate anybody as ample and grand as Anderson, let alone protect him when he needed it most.
In my head jingled the silly words of the song, chopped into deformed syllables, as sung by the mad grandmother in the play: “Till i-twilted, I wore it. I ll-alway s-adore it, my swee- tlittle Alice blue-g own.” Without the missions, my life was in danger of being reduced once again to a similar mawkish, misstated claptrap.