To Enrique Fierro and Ida Vitale—
Just like you, muchachos, I didn’t believe in ghosts, and if I’d heard then one of the stories I tell Mario now, I would have said poor guy, and then I would have added, fully convinced, he’s crazy, or maybe, he’s pretending to be crazy or he’s lost it, or better yet, he’s loco, and the world, muchachos, listen up, this world is an endless black joke, but at least I – I don’t know about you – but I, officer Warren Sutpen, ex-nightwatchman of the glorious Harry Ransom Center of the University of Texas, here, at my forty-some years and ready to respond to the call, still find myself saved.
Saved from who or what? I don’t really get it. I don’t get it now, and I didn’t before. And the thing is, before, say, a shitload of years ago, I didn’t talk like this. For example, not six months ago, the word ‘joke’ meant something funny to me, like ‘just kidding’, or ‘playing a trick’, and ‘black’, I mean, ‘negro’, was just a little word I couldn’t use, no, never ever, not to talk about los pinches negros, for instance. (Mario, my psychologist, calls them ‘African-Americans’, and if they’re Chinese, they’re ‘Asian-Americans’, and if they’re Latinos, he calls them ‘Hispanics’ and if they’re Hindus he calls them ‘Indians’, and so all this networking or whatever it is seems to go really well for him, since he says everything in this nice, musical way that I just can’t imitate whenever he corrects me with his perfect accent and the manners of the white Texan he actually isn’t.)
He also says two marvellous things about ghosts. The first: Warren – he looks at me, I listen – is that they seem very real, but really, they’re the product of delirium, of a mental anomaly that’s perfectly controllable if only you accept it, and of course, Mario, I accept it, and moreover, I’ve made that very clear to all the fucking ghosts. The second is that talking with them shouldn’t be considered psychotic behaviour, as there are a number of occult sciences not entirely removed from the topic. Of course, this calms me down. I haven’t felt calm since they fired me from the museum. Sometimes I’m overwhelmed by panic attacks. Sometimes I cry for a long time, until I fall asleep. On the days that neither of those things happens, I have a sick desire to put on my blue uniform and go back to the Harry Ransom Centere to wake up André and Antonin and Louis and Paul.
If it weren’t for my poor old lady, who suffers more than anyone when I tell her these things, I would have done it already. I say old lady and I’m sure you think I’m talking about my mother, but you’re wrong. My old lady, mi vieja, is my wife, Leonora Eulalia Campos Santos, the mother of mi guacho, the great Miguelito Thomas Sutpen Campos. This is my family and I am Warren Sutpen and I declare myself indebted, heart, body, and soul, to them and Trilce, our beautiful Lab, a German Shepherd Miguelito calls Spooky with an obstinacy he’ll have to let go of when he wants to get ahead in life. Of course, the worst thing is that when I’m not there, Leonora calls him Spooky because according to her, Trilce isn’t a healthy name for a pet. Mi pobre vieja. She doesn’t even know what it means y ya está chingando. I’ve told her a thousand times that Spooky is a name for gringo dogs and faggot dogs and our dog is bien mexicano and if they hadn’t cut his balls off, they would have been as big as a bull’s.
Of course, it wasn’t my idea to name the dog Trilce because I don’t know what the fuck that means either, and I’m never one to make things difficult. It was the Peruvian’s idea. My friend, el pinche motherfucking peruano who brought me all this bad luck. It goes more or less like this, Mario: the pig comes up to me one day and asks me about the dog, and I say, are you referring to Spooky? and he asks me what colour Spooky is and before I can answer he says that if he’s black, Warren, black like death, you can’t call the dog Spooky. Ah qué peruano matarife, I think, he ought to be a warlock. Spooky is black like Cujo from the movie. The Peruvian laughs and orders me (it felt like a friendly order) to honour Miguelito’s brave Afghan with the name Trilce, and when I ask him why, he talks about the great César Vallejo and I imagine a red-skinned Indian just like the ones we exterminated a shitload of years ago in this pinche, hateful country.
But I’m wrong, of course: the great César isn’t Indian and he doesn’t have little streaks of blood on his cheekbones. He was a poor gentleman poet who wrote a very cultured book that no one understands. I’m telling you it’s cultured, right? and the crazy asshole tells me it’s painful, Warren, looking at me like he were constipated, as if reading made him feel like he were being punched. The day he shows up, I wake up early, kiss Miguelito on the forehead, and after eating the egg and chorizo tacos that mi vieja makes, I set off for the bus with my lunchbox. My regular days are this: bed-kiss-bus-museum, and on the way back, museum-bus-kiss-bed. I’m happy. Leonora’s happy. Miguelito’s happy. What else do we need to be happy? Not much. On the weekends we go to the movies or throw back a few pork tacos and a giant pozole at Arandas, or we go to the lake and cook up a barbecue listening to Los Tigres del Norte. At night, if my old lady’s up for it, when Miguelito’s already asleep, we close the door and I lie on top of her carefully and close my eyes, and for a little while my Leonora turns into one of those chavitas who clean the museum on the night shift. Of course, Leonora doesn’t like it that I work at night, she’s not an idiot. You already know, Mario, in spite of everything, I look white as bread, and I only speak English on the job, and that alone conjures up the girls who only have to see a friendly gringo to start dreaming of the green card I’d be happy to give them for just one pinche kiss. I’m telling you all this and repeating it to myself, knowing I’ll never do anything because I’m just a poor pendejo.
So I’m telling you only what’s happening now, not before, since before I was happy, Leonora was happy, Miguelito was happy, and there was nothing complicated in going from the house to the museum and from the museum home. But then, the stupid motherfucker pinche hocicón de mierda comes, and he plants himself right in front of me as if I owed him money. ‘Sir, you know who the Sutpens were, correct?’ el peruano says in Spanish, as if he were testing me. ‘You’re referring to my family?’ I answer, pissed, putting the holster of my 45mm in my hands without any subtlety. ‘The Sutpens are a family, yes,’ he adds suddenly, looking at the ceiling with the air of an absent-minded philosopher, and I’m about to put an ugly end to all this bullshit when I hear what he asks me: ‘Thomas Sutpen, is he a relative of yours?’ Ah no, chingados, I tell myself, this asshole knows me, and so without thinking, I answer he’s my father, and for a second, Mario, no, for five seconds, I see the old bastard sprawled on the porch of my house in El Paso, totally drunk, vomit all over his clothes, his face dirty with grease, and my mother asking me, Warren, take your father to his room, he’s sick, and I pick him up and he tells me from the ground, ‘tú no me toques, puto,’ except in English, ‘Warren, you nasty son of a bitch, you’re a disgrace! Do you hear me? Don’t you dare lay your hands on me, you faggot!’ He laughed and I knew, Mario, that he was angry because my friends were from the border: Mexicans like me, even though I was a gringo, and Thomas Sutpen, my father, pointed all his rage at them and their fathers and their fathers’ fathers and all of Mexico.
‘Thomas Sutpen exists,’ the Peruvian then says, smiling, and I know nothing except that now I feel a sick desire to punch him. I don’t do it. In fact, I do the complete opposite: I sit down, fold my hands and listen to him carefully. ‘Please don’t let this bother you: the other day I came to the museum, and while you watched my backpack, I saw your last name on your uniform and remembered.’ I didn’t say anything. ‘Sutpen, you understand? General Thomas Sutpen arrives in Mississippi after the Civil War and establishes a condemned dynasty, an incestuous, bastard breed, half white and half black. Do you know what I’m talking about? Absalom, Absalom! Sir, your father… Your father has the name of one of Faulkner’s characters, and I’ve discovered it.’ What a fucking moron. Just look at the asshole, coming up to me with his stories of miserable people and upsetting my life with his little coincidences that aren’t worth dick. That’s exactly when everything ends, Mario. The night falls suddenly, and I don’t notice anything until the cocksucker comes back, smiling, with the novel, apparently to lend it to me. And what does the idiot Warren do? Nothing, he does nothing, he says, ‘Thanks, I’ll read it,’ and instead of shutting his trap, he begins to tell the Peruvian about his son of a motherfucker father who must have died in the street because he hasn’t heard anything from him for a shitload of years.
And then what, muchachos. Well, guess. Warren opens Mr Faulkner’s book and reads and reads and spends two whole nights reading in the museum as if he were possessed. My old lady doesn’t understand what’s going on. Miguelito doesn’t give a shit, he stays glued to the TV like an idiot. I tell Leonora I’m informing myself about our ancestors, and I also talk to her about our bloody origins, and for the first time in our fifteen years of marriage, I call my father by his name, and she looks at me with the eyes of someone who’s suddenly grown afraid. Mi pobre vieja, she doesn’t understand a thing. She wants to read the novel, but she doesn’t know English, and every time I tell her about General Sutpen and how his sons kill each other because of an incestuous love that they know nothing about, she starts to babble something about the devil and the Virgin of God Knows Where and she bursts out crying and begs me on her knees to go to church, Warren, to pray for your soul. And of course, Mario, I go with her and kneel and make the sign of the cross and do everything just like Leonora, but like hell I pray, because I can’t.
From then on, the days seem different, the bus rides are longer and more tedious, people stare at me, and I can’t think straight in the fucking Texas heat. You know what I do? I don’t only read all of Mr Faulkner’s novels, but I go to the library like I were hungry for more. The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Sanctuary, Light in August, all of them, I read all of them, looking for more clues, and the pinche Peruvian doesn’t show up, not even by accident. One day, when I’m convinced that I’d just imagined everything, I see his fucking smile in front of my face and hear his voice saying, ‘Warren, did you like the book?’ and though once again I’m about to kick the shit out of him, I answer yes. From this day on we are friends, he says, and I say nothing. I don’t have the guts to kick him out of the museum. It gets worse when he asks me about Harry Ransom’s poets, and right then I realise that for the past three years Warren Sutpen has been the nightwatchman of a museum he’s never seen.
That’s what I’m thinking about when suddenly, for no reason at all, the Peruvian starts with the stories of these dead people. ‘The Surrealists,’ he says, with a mysterious passion, and I automatically think of those Mexican corrido bands I like so much. But no. I’m wrong, Mario. What the hell are the Surrealists? I don’t know, I never understood. The Peruvian says they’re here, in the Harry Ransom, as if they were sleeping on the second floor. My silence eggs him on, and so he starts bringing me books of strange poems that he leaves on the table. I read them at night, searching for more clues, but now I don’t understand anything worth shit, and for the first time I feel the pinche Peruvian is leading me on. I don’t say anything. I keep reading from inertia, I think. One night I get home from work, and when I try to sleep, Mario, something very strange happens: I can’t. I have a shitload of words turning over in my head. Words that sound like women’s and children’s voices in unison. Words that make a sentence that says nothing, but I know I’ve heard it before. ‘It’s like a nightmare, but I’m awake,’ I tell Leonora in the morning, and without holding back her tears, she immediately places a rosary in my hands and starts to pray.
Then she begs me desperately to stop reading. She tells me that reading is blasphemy and it only causes pain. She asks me to do it for Miguelito, and I tell her, ‘Mi vieja, don’t you worry about you and Miguelito,’ although I would swear el cabrón de Miguelito doesn’t notice a thing and keeps sitting like an idiot in front of the TV. That night, after all the museum employees have left, I keep looking at the pile of books and discover, to my surprise, that there’s a new one. nadja is the title and the author is André Breton, and I remember vividly that this pendejo is one of the dead poets that the Peruvian talked about. I imagine, then, that it’s another indecipherable book, but upon opening it, I come across a story like Mr Faulkner’s, except this time with photos and little drawings, and, hungry again, I devour the little book impatiently, looking for more clues. Nadja is a slippery woman, and she seems crazy. She’s poor, beautiful, she prostitutes herself, and the narrator wants to save her. That’s what I understand. But Mario, what suddenly makes me want to stand up aren’t the strange noises beginning to echo through the museum, but rather, the underlined sentence that appears at the end of the text:
‘Beauty will be convulsive, or it won’t be.’
I can’t believe it. It hits me: that was the phrase that the voices repeated in my sleep, Mario! I know it then, and at that same moment, when I stumble into the main room, I see the four of them standing, staring straight at me with the same damn smile I had already seen on the Peruvian. André and Louis and Paul and Antonin. The dead poets. They introduce themselves delicately. I approach them, unafraid, and we talk and talk and talk, and that’s all we do until dawn. You already know the rest. I know what you’re going to tell me now because you’ve already told me before. I’ve seen that security video several times and I understand the shirtless man who talks and gestures at the museum walls is me.
I’ve told hardly anyone what the ghosts told me. Once I told my poor old lady, and she fell into a swoon that I didn’t think would end. It more or less goes like this: the day I leave the hospital, I pick up the phone and call my brother the puto (because I have a brother who really is a faggot) and after telling him a few lies, I get a few vague indications of the place where I can find him. I take mi vieja’s truck and tell Miguelito that we’re going for a ride. When Miguelito asks me if it’s going to take long, I don’t say anything; the place is an hour away, near San Antonio, and I know Miguelito is going to fall asleep on top of the dog in less than five minutes.
When I put my hand over mi pobre guacho’s drooling mouth, Thomas Sutpen is less than twenty yards from us, with a cardboard sign in his lap, moving on his wheelchair between the cars. Miguelito asks me if we’re there yet, and I tell him yes and silently show him this sick man begging on the roadside. I take a wad of bills out of my pocket and put it in Miguelito’s hand. ‘Give it to him and come back. Take Trilce with you,’ I say, and mi guacho agrees. It’s then, muchachos, just when I see mi guachito walking toward the old man, that I understand everything that’s happened to me, and I know I’m saved. I don’t care if Thomas Sutpen drinks up all the money in a day. I don’t care that my son is giving my money to his grandfather without either of them knowing it. When Miguelito returns and asks why I’m crying, I tell him I don’t know and try to smile, without any luck.
I’d like to watch TV with you, Warren Sutpen says, before starting the car and heading back.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Janet Hendrickson translated The Future Is Not Ours (ed. Diego Trelles Paz), an anthology of fiction by young Latin American writers, and has published translations of fiction and essays in Granta, Zoetrope: All-Story, n+1, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in nonfiction writing from the University of Iowa and is a PhD student in Hispanic Literature at Cornell.