The Trace

 La Esmeralda, Mexico


She knocked on the bathroom door.


‘Can I come in to shower?’


‘En el trono,’ he called out. ‘Give me a couple minutes.’


He was just reaching for the roll of toilet paper on the floor when something happened. A reverberating collision and a seasick feeling at once. The toilet quivered under his thighs as the walls rattled and the front door – it must be the front door – cracked, splintering as though a tree had crashed through it, but there were no trees in the yard. He began to rise from the toilet into something awful, into a new sound, into the rising decibels of the woman screaming from the living room. Bent over still reaching for his pants, he knew there would not be enough time to pull them up. He was aware of every facet of the bathroom then, as though he had been studying it for escape routes for months. The canary-yellow plastic curtain drawn halfway across the tub. The rusted showerhead releasing its slow, incurable drip. The colourless bath mat with its frayed, dirty edge folded up. The dingy rattan clothes hamper. The stale towel hanging from a nail in the door. And to his right, above the sink, a red hand towel limp on its clear plastic ring over the soap dish. The sink was set in a water-warped cabinet with a louvred door.


The frenzy in his ears stopped. Her scream was cut off. It had risen into a hysterical shriek and now vacated itself with a soft humph. Like a chainsaw dropped into a swamp. Chairs were falling, or maybe it was the kitchen table that someone smashed into the wall. Another tremor went through the house. No male voices. No commands, no shouting. All he had heard was a tumult and the hysterical clipped scream. The furniture dragging and feet moving.


He wasn’t breathing anymore. He turned to his right, taking a step and holding his pants. He glanced from the faucet and the toothbrushes blossoming, one orange and one blue, from their dirty glass on the sink, to the flecked mirror with the bare ceiling bulb glaring in it and he saw himself. In hyperclarity. Alien, still holding his pants at his knees in one hand. He crouched at the cabinet, let go of his pants, and opened the cabinet door. His hands were trembling so badly they barely functioned. A vague pandemonium in the house was approaching the bathroom door, and the chaos that had been general now focused like a mountainside of storm water channeling into a narrow arroyo. Supporting himself with his hands on the tile floor, he plunged his legs into the cabinet, over a stack of toilet rolls, knocking over a bottle of Cloralex and the box of Detergente Roma. The rest of him followed so quickly, it was as though the cabinet had sucked him inward, his knees jamming themselves up against the sink plumbing, his naked unwiped ass sliding over packets of rat poison, his upper back scraping the cabinet’s side panel, his head wedged beneath the sink. With his fingers at its lower edge, he pulled closed the cabinet door just as the bathroom door banged open.


In slatted half-darkness, he put his left hand down onto the cabinet floor. It was wet. The Cloralex had spilled, and the fumes were burning his eyes. He closed them, aware of several bodies entering the bathroom, saying nothing, creepily silent. He no longer heard the woman. He didn’t feel her breathing in the other room. He didn’t feel her in the world anymore. Cramped in place with Cloralex, detergent stench, and damp rot in his nose, he froze. Outside the cabinet, he knew his shit in the toilet was stinking up the bathroom. There might have been a spot of it on the floor. The men must be staring at the cabinet. Where else was he going to be.


A set of bootsteps, slow but springy, crossed the threshold into the bathroom. They halted a few feet in front of the sink. Nothing. No sound. Outside the house, though, he could hear two trucks, their mufflers cut away, racing down Alameda. Then this last set of boots came forward, stopping inches from the cabinet. He squeezed his eyes and could visualise the man, whoever it was, looking at himself in the toothpaste-flecked mirror. But he was wrong. The man had squatted. The cabinet door opened quickly.


He didn’t breathe, he didn’t move. Although he had been looking at nothing before, now he was aware of the knees and torso of a hunkered man whose jeans rose above the white-rooster stitching of his black boots. He was sure he hadn’t even shifted his head, but his eyes must have opened on their own. He was looking at the strangest thing he would see for the brief remainder of his life.


The man squatting before him had an enraged, flushed expression, and his face, his whole head, was bobbing in the weirdest way, uncontrollably, like an ornament on the hood of a car going over bad road. The head-bobbing man’s mouth opened and he hissed something in English, asked something, but it didn’t make any sense.


‘So you a Redskins fan, huh?’


This is an excerpt – the first chapter – from Forrest Gander’s second novel, The Trace, forthcoming from New Directions.


is an award-winning poet, novelist and translator. His numerous books include As a FriendScience & SteepleflowerCore Samples from the World and, most recently, The Trace. He is the A.K. Seaver Professor of Literary Arts and Comparative Literature at Brown University.



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