It was a Sunday afternoon, siesta time: my phone buzzed in my pocket. ‘Is this Agustín Fernández Mallo?’ ‘Yes, who is this?’ ‘The Republican Party Department of Lotteries and Prize Draws, Washington DC, we are calling to inform you that you have won.’ ‘Won? Won what?’ ‘Isn’t this Agustín Fernández Mallo, a Spaniard residing in the city of Chicago?’
I know I should have told the truth to that female, Puerto Rican-inflected voice, I know I should have told her that that was a different Agustín, that I was not currently vacationing in Spain, that I did not work as a teller at Bank of America branch no. five in the city of Chicago, that I was not 34 years old, the fact is, I should have said many things I did not say because, following my reply in the affirmative, the Puerto Rican woman informed me that I had won a trip to accompany the vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin on the campaign trail. It’s not that I have anything against accompanying a potential US Vice President, but rather that I would all of a sudden be obliged to request my one month vacation allowance. I was at that time bogged down in the writing of a blow-by-blow account of Great Britain in the seventies, focusing on sitcoms and the onset of punk, and I had set that month aside to watch the six seasons of George and Mildred back-to-back (available at El Corte Inglés, on sale right now).
Long story short: seven days later I found myself loading my suitcase into the black Citroën C5 waiting outside my front door.
At 8 o’clock on a Friday morning I was dropped off at the entrance to the San Francisco Hilton, a hotel I already knew from the tv show The Streets of San Francisco (1972, Michael Douglas and Karl Malden), the weekly adventures that fueled my childhood gunslinger fantasies.
The Hilton lobby was a sort of amphitheatre, which could be accessed via the upper stands, while below, a collection of fifteen box offices served as check-in desks. The wafer-coloured doors, the copper banisters, the fake Persian rugs and precisely that odd amphitheatre shape seemed to conceal the fact that all of this had at one time been a college-sized basketball arena. But, if so, how to explain my childhood memory of the hotel in The Streets of San Francisco? It was then that I thought that, in America, even the most ancient things always call to mind something modern, and not the other way round. For instance, to the left and right, large satin-hued posters displayed Palin’s face, half-seen from the side over the Stars and Stripes. It was quite clear that Palin was an old-fashioned woman who recalled something from the here and now: Zara outfits modeled on Sex in the City. Two black concierges led me over to desk no. 10. At all times, Jesse made sure that nothing strayed from the plan. It’s just dawned on me that I haven’t yet mentioned Jesse: dressed in a loose-fitting, foot-length coat, very dark Ray-Ban Wayfarers and leather gloves, he was the Republican Party PR Officer for Foreign Affairs, four rungs down from Sarah Palin’s personal adviser. I placed my suitcase on the almost Persian rug and Jesse, without fuss, checked me in. Passport, smoking room, 5-mega’ internet connection. From his replies to the data-gathering-girl, it did not take me long to figure out that Jesse had been on the force. The young woman’s questions set him on edge, made him awkward, accustomed as he was to asking all the questions, he was all yeses and nos; a multiple choice test. Jesse took his leave with a handshake, not without first making it clear that I should be in the lobby at 8am the following day, ready to set off. ‘It’s a long trip son. One city and five towns tomorrow. You’ve got the whole day to yourself today, twenty-four hours, rest up but get some air. I recommend you get yourself down to the bay to see the seals and eat three pistachio ice-creams.’ He took me by the shoulders and said, ‘Those are fine ice-creams, son, mark my words, real fine. If you have any problems, here’s my number.’ He scribbled a cell number on the back of his card, from which I gathered that this was his ‘plan B’, the one you give out so as not to pick up when the phone rings. His handwriting linked jagged numbers. I thought of badly-tied shoelaces.
I placed my card in the slot and there was light. To the left, the bed. A table at the back, next to the tinted window. In the bathroom, two identical wash basins were embedded in a single, off-white piece of marble. I washed my hands; the airline food had left them in a foul state. The faucet called to mind an abstract, metaphysical dolphin, as if sculpted by Oteiza but Made in China. I threw water on my face. Jet lag. I was filled with curiosity at the thought that the following day I would shake the hand of Sarah Palin (maybe even a kiss on the cheek, who knows?). In the days leading up to the trip I had gathered plenty of information about the candidate online, to familiarise myself; I don’t like to be caught with my pants down.
I dressed for comfort, a white Knicks tracksuit, bought specifically for the trip, and took out a handful of books from my suitcase, nothing special, miscellany on the history of America. I turned on the TV and headed over to the window. On the small, round (but almost Elizabethan) table, I found a note addressed to me, on paper bearing the Hilton letterhead. As a welcoming gesture, someone had taken the trouble to write down by hand the hotel’s telephone directory, the menus, the city’s top sights, everything, word for word, copied to the letter from the hotel’s standard, printed directory, which was placed symmetrically to the right. The one addressed to me had been signed by the hotel management in impeccable handwriting. It was headed by the phrase ‘one hundred years of solitude’; this last detail baffled me, although I found it moving.
I threw myself onto the bed, one of those royal models from which the canopy has been axed, and lay there flat out. The TV roared; a jungle of pixels and photosynthetic electrons unfurling at my feet. I lost myself awhile in the stuccoed ceiling.
I was woken by the television, 10am, two hours of sleep, cut off from the world. The TV set, however, had not let up in its search for viewers, it watched over the room, and even the world, on my behalf. I sat up and there she was, spectacular, a full screen shot of Sarah Palin, seated, her legs tightly crossed, to the right of a presenter wearing a very thick-knotted tie. I took a cup of self-heating instant coffee from the drinks cabinet, some cookies, and stretched out again on the eiderdown decked with seahorses. Palin held her pose so precisely that I paid no heed to what she was saying. I realised then that her face was a landscape, but not just any landscape. Not an LA housing project, or a thronged New York street, or the built-up Florida coast, or even a car dealership, no, Palin’s face was something very primal, and this was the source of its power, its appeal. In that face I saw gently rolling hills shrouded in autumnal ochre, I saw deciduous forests, meadows with trout-filled lakes and faintly rising crags. Palin’s face was that landscape, neutral, commonplace, as soon covered by snow as by the warm dusk sun. I understood then the mystery of her sex appeal, the reason why YouTube was full of videos of a supposedly naked Palin, I understood why people made pilgrimage to the Chicago Old Town bar, home to a portrait of Palin, painted by the owner of the establishment, a professed Democrat, in which she is wearing nothing but high heels, brandishing a shotgun. I also understood why that women of modest bodily proportions, librarian spectacles, unabashed cynicism, condescending sweetness and a touch of foul temper could hold her own in morbid fascination and sexual iconography with Paris Hilton, or why, according to the gossip magazine OK, she had been asked to pose for a Playboy centrefold should she fail in politics; yes, I understood why, ever since she first emerged onto the political scene, Palin had been swept along in an aura of carnal attraction, raw and at the same time ingenuous, to the extent that a not inconsiderable number of Democrat supporters confessed to their attraction for the candidate (who is also a mother, a housemaid, a woman plain and simple, a bear hunter, a compulsive child bearer and even a flute player, to judge from a video available on YouTube). I understood, lastly, why dolls of Palin dressed as a schoolgirl, in a Tartan miniskirt and red bra, sold like hot cakes online at thirty dollars apiece, because it became clear to me that in the neutrality of that face, in that landscape that was everything and nothing, lay the ambiguous, disturbing component that everybody needs to be the object of morbid fantasy and desire. A full-on close-up bore out my theory: slightly jutting cheekbones, undoctored, outsized eyes behind unframed glasses, giving her the air of a fish in its bowl, somewhat fleshy lips (like a Big Mac, neither too much loin nor too much fat), always slightly open, not in a gesture of sexual allure, but rather quite the opposite, of perplexity or dumbfoundedness. That whole face mapped out the purity of its landscape, nothing lurid, dusky, the embodiment of films like The Horse Whisperer or On Golden Pond. This facial landscape was crowned by a bun, in place but disheveled enough to let it be known that she had been changing the little one’s nappy when she had had to rush out as fast as possible to deliver a speech to millions of fellow citizens who, like her, also changed nappies, brandished shotguns and wore their hair in disheveled buns.
All this unsettled me. I went to the rest room, washed my face a second time, skim read the welcome note again, smoked a Lucky, but without paying attention to any of these things. I could think only of Palin’s sex appeal, that woman with the look of a small town schoolmistress, America’s most intimate iconography, the Olivia Newton John of Grease before her sex-animal transformation at the end of that film. Palin, the woman whose secret aphrodisiac is her apparent weakness.
I sat down on the floor, a few feet from the screen, I believe that an ambulance passed by in the street at that moment. I began to tune in to her voice, the cadence of her words, almost mechanical, automated. All of a sudden they sounded like those of a cyborg, half-human, half-machine, at which point the autumnal, neutral landscape of her face, those mountains with their flora and fauna, froze over, became extraterrestrial. She ceased to be Olivia Newton John baking apple pie in the cabin as she waited for a Robert Redford to return on horseback, while Henry Fonda fished trout for dinner, and mutated into a ruthless Bionic Woman on a secret mission, dispatched to the far corners of the American electoral universe.
For a moment, this revelation emptied my mind of thoughts.
I called room service. 1.30pm, the Sarah Palin special continued on screen, and I could think only of feasting on it. I ordered a sandwich, some fruit and beer, and I understood that in her, those two features, that natural face and bionic voice did not simply merge as one, but rather gave rise to a third outcome that was more than the sum of its parts: the essence of ambiguity, of evolution. And it was this last component that gave the final flourish to the mysterious sexual magnetism of her face, since there is nothing more attractive than the slightly monstrous, that which does not partake in nature entirely but is at the same time everywhere.
3pm, a time out. I turned off the volume on the TV. I finished my half-eaten roast beef sandwich. It came served on an old-fashioned silver platter which recalled a late-Cold War telecommunications satellite. Once again, something old recalling something new.
I ate the slivers of melon, watermelon and pineapple as I looked out the window. Next to the traffic lights several ambulances attended to an accident. Something lay on the street, shrouded in a golden blanket. I took a snapshot of that bulk, ablaze on the petrol-blue asphalt; a dead fish brought in on a black tide, I thought. San Francisco is the US city with the greatest number of down-and-outs, and at least fifty swarmed around the bulk before it was carted off by a health worker. Just opposite, in the parking lot, the cars, ordered by floors, on silent alert, looked like the sculpture of a future disaster; a guy dressed in a white Knicks tracksuit, like mine, kicked all of the wheels, as if calibrating the pressure. As I observed him the thought came to me that I love hotels because they offer you the possibility of being someone else; your personal items are not with you and, aside from the TV (usually a Sony), nothing is brand name. A blank space in which you are given the chance to reconstruct yourself. In comparison, a self-help manual is nothing but a shopping list. By this stage, I hadn’t the slightest intention of leaving the room until the TV had brought the Palin special to a close.
In my hurry, I’ve neglected to mention that I had plans to write a piece about Palin on my return, a feature-style article (like the one Yasmina Reza wrote on Sarkozy), but at this point I was aware that I could now write only about her body. With the aim of taking notes, I sat down on the round table and, on the back of one of the sheets from the directory that someone had written for me, I jotted down:
Idea for a future article: much as, for Europeans, the greatest expression of sexual perversion involves explicitly desecrating religious symbols, a nun dressed as a madame, for instance, in the States, where religion draws directly on the eco-puritan protestant myth known as Mother Nature, the favoured male sexual perversion is the ambiguity of a natural landscape, the chance that the little house on the prairie might mutate into a roadside whorehouse, the chance that the book read nightly by Mrs Ingalls was the Kama Sutra camouflaged as the Bible. That is the ambiguity of Palin. A Mrs Ingalls straying from the natural order. End of note.
There were now showing images from the campaign, distant, human figures that, with the sound turned off, were nothing more than objects cross-dressing as people, mechanical functions, globules moving from one blood vessel to the next. They were followed by McCain, Bush junior, Bush senior, stretching all the way back to George Washington. Each of these presidents was interspersed with Palin visiting military installations, homeless shelters, traveling downriver in a doughnut-shaped raft, pressing the flesh of a man in a white gown, clutching an inflatable rubber Homer Simpson doll, etc. In among so many men I noticed another of the candidate’s quirks: her androgynous face. I cut her hair with my eyes’ razor and discovered that, far from having an androgynous face, it was quite the opposite: it was both male and female. I headed to the bathroom, turned on the Chinese Otieza one-piece faucet and rinsed my eyes with plenty of water; the mirror responded with my tired twin. The bath took time to fill. Once inside, I closed my eyes. I saw Palin at the far end of the tub, naked, smiling at me, her frameless glasses lay next to the gel holder, clean, pure glasses, neither pedantic thick-rimmed hipster frames nor ostentatious Dolce Gabbana, only lenses that, without overdoing it, constituted her erotic gaze, free of artifice, honest, sexy to the furthest ends of the ballot box, Ugly Betty after the final transformation. This revelation struck me as final, and with each passing second I grew more fearful at the thought of the next day’s meeting; my head tends to spin when faced with women of such intensity.
Night had already fallen by the time I sat down again to watch the television. For some reason I had yet to grasp, the ambulances were still on the street. After a quick ad break, images of Palin began rolling again, her day-to-day, taking the kids on the school-run, eating roast moose in a below-zero cabin, dressed like Dynasty at her graduation ball. For the first time, I focused on her body. I separated it from her head. I had to strain to decapitate her, but once I had done so I had an epiphany: I saw small breasts on a sturdy ribcage, like a makeshift bodybuilder, a force stopped in its tracks. Once again, ambiguity. I saw short legs with toned thighs, and I recalled another smash-hit online Palin doll, the one dressed in a black, foot-length coat, falling away to reveal a white miniskirt and a thick belt. The warrior, the Palin who brandishes her weapon, the videogame heroine, Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft in Tomb Raider, chemically pure sex in an unreal woman who arouses the realest of passions. That was Palin, as hyper-muscled as she was hyper-sexed, capable of wiping the floor with any man while breastfeeding her youngest. I wasn’t afraid, no, but I wished with all of my being that my cell phone would ring with Jesse’s number lighting up the screen, to chat, to distract myself with a friendly voice, for no reason. In the parking lot opposite, the man dressed in a Knicks tracksuit continued to kick the tires softly, cursing.
It must have been 10pm when I crossed the hotel lobby. More than a former baseball stadium, it now looked to me like the remains of a Roman circus. On the posters, the candidate’s eyes shone with particular lustre under the halogen lights. I headed out and turned right. I bought a six-pack of beer at the corner liquor store, they were placed inside a white bag, without advertising [like the objects in hotel rooms, I remember thinking]. I began to go up and down hills, always in the direction of the sea. A guy passed me, also wearing a Knicks tracksuit, then I saw a third with the same tracksuit, pushing a trolley. I felt suddenly foolish in such attire. I can’t stand team sports, or hip-hop, and I don’t even know who the Knicks are.
Mapless, I was led by instinct: a piece of paper on the ground demanded my attention and, when I reached it, it was the neon sign of a shuttered up shop that made my legs move towards it and, on arriving at the sign, it was a distant siren, or a woman’s back disappearing round a corner, that drove me to carry on. Following in the wake of these ambiguous yet powerful signs, I emerged at the wharf, with its closed shopping mall. The Golden Gate hovered in the mist. Stalls, various attractions, bars, the small fruit market, everything was closed. My eyes were caught by the glistening bodies of some seals, splashing around. I sat down on a bench. In the water, those mammals, tightly packed together, formed a shapeless mass, the noises issuing forth from their throats brought to mind the wails of an election candidate on losing who, now alone, her campaign advisers having left, abandons herself to the darkness of her hotel room, her own personal Dark Night of the Soul. I left the six-pack on the ground. The lights on Alcatraz flashed in the distance. Someone approached to my right. Instinctively, I looked. He sat down beside me. He was a heavy-set man, carrying an ice-cream. He offered it to me. I accepted. The man took out a cell phone, keyed in a number; three seconds later mine buzzed in my pocket. I answered, it was the voice of the man at my side, ‘Like I said Agustín, this is a good place to get some air; you seem like a good kid, it’s just a pity you had such shameful thoughts about our candidate in your room this evening. The truth is, for the good of all concerned, I don’t think it would be a good idea for you to travel with her.’ ‘I know Jesse, I know,’ I stuttered in reply, ‘but tell me, how can you bear the erotic charge of the candidate, how do you withstand that force? I know I couldn’t.’ It was then that Jesse, in a flurry of movements, stripped himself of his coat and jacket and tore off his trousers (bound by threads) to reveal a suit and a miniskirt, red, atop a compact, slight body. When he removed his wig, I was dumbstruck by the disheveled bun. He took off his Ray-Bans and took out thick-lensed, frameless glasses and put them on. She looked at me long and hard, with those wide eyes, far off, a fish in its bowl. The ice-cream melted in my hand and Sarah said, ‘Come on, crack open those beers, lets get wasted.’
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Agustín Fernández Mallo(La Coruña, 1967) is a Spanish physicist and writer currently residing in Palma de Mallorca. He is a leading member of the so-called Nocilla Generation. His latest book is Yo siempre regreso a los pezones y al punto 7 del Tractatus (Alfaguara)
Michael McDevitt was a runner-up on the inaugural Harvill Secker/Granta Young Translators' Prize. He lives in Madrid.