Getting Places Safely

Posted on June 1, 2017

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Getting Places Safely

Robert Joe Stout

 

The Governor of the State of Mexico

affirmed that the Church answers

the call to preserve moral values.

JENARO VILLAMIL

 

I first encountered my double among a shuffle of priests, reporters and security guards fringing the auditorium where the Governor was addressing the national Council of Catholic Bishops. Mistaken identity, I thought: a semblance, a deflection that catches one’s eye when one passes a mirror. I shrugged it away—something imagined—but the image remained; a short, rotund, black-bearded fellow in a tightly fitted chauffer’s jacket. I started to say something to one of the sound technicians who’d slipped out to smoke a cigarette when the image reappeared. Not image, a person. Or a pseudo-person, apparition, phantom, I couldn’t tell. Only that it was looking at me. Not malevolently, but critically.

A weird sort of chill came over me. Who? What was it? I averted my gaze as the sound technician grunted something about the governor pretending to be a priest. I nodded, too preoccupied to respond in any other way. The Other—what else can I call it?—stepped towards me and—now this is curious—a large woman veered around him as though she could see him, as though he had a physical presence. He didn’t seem to notice her but half-squinting, one eye partially closed—a habit of mine—he seemed about to convey something, say something, then turned abruptly and disappeared.

Now look, I’m a down to earth Mexican, I don’t believe in supernatural beings but my grandparents did. Portuguese, not Spanish, in the Estado de Mexico merging into solidarity with the land, with work, with the Church. For them Mexico was an extension of the Azores and they talked with their ancestors, with spirits, prayed to the Divine as though he were an alcalde, a governor, the President of the Republic. Their ancestors revealed secrets, guided decisions, consoled their heartbreaks, all with the aid, I presume, of the Divine.

I saw this, accepted this, but absorbed little or nothing of it. My world was wrestling, eating, toy swords and pellet guns, tearing things apart so I could put them back together. I liked schools because gangs of us romped together playing vaqueros or revolutionaries—the learning was decoration. I absorbed what came easily, ignored the rest. Like I do now. Chauffeuring for the state. Hauling dignitaries here and there. I get paid well and travel all over: Mexico City, Ecatapec, Malinalco, Puebla, Veracruz. I hear lots of stories, political stories, corruption stories, narco stories but I ignore them. They’re not part of my life. My life is driving. Getting places safely. Arriving home to good meals, romps with my two kids. I’m a lucky man.

Or was until I met my double.

Five of us in the limousine, three in back, one next to me in front, all of them from the Governor’s staff. Pérez yanked his shirt collar open and pulled his necktie askew. “Moral values,” he parroted the Governor’s words, “encrusted in the government thanks to the Church and its bishops.” “All that crap about his parents. And Opus Dei,” one of those in back jibed. “Ay guey,  when in Rome tell Romans what they want to hear,” the official next to him countered, to which the Opus Dei speaker laughed, “Qué? Not mention the eight billion set aside for discretionary use.” They all laughed and the one who mentioned Romans chided, “Not mentioning it could be virtuous.” “Virtue being dinero.” “They’ve got a good gig, those bishops. Didya see the old boy from Texcoco’s BMW?” “Was that gold on the hubcaps?”

El Gov needs them,” Pérez interrupted, “he wants to be president. Church support means votes.” “A good Catholic who opposes Evil.” “Evil being the leftwing hodgepodge from Mexico City.” “Ni modo,” Pérez insisted, “In politics you need an enemy. If you don’t have one you manufacture one. It’s a simple formula. The Church is good. You represent the Church. You are good.” “With gold hubcaps and hundred year old brandy!”

“Are you any better?” a voice interrupted.

Despite the double-trailered truck in the lane beside ours I flicked a sideways glance to see who’d spoken. An icy needle darted up my spine. I was driving but my double was there between me and Pérez, arguing.  Using words like responsibility. Integrity. One of those in back chided “Our chauffeur’s got a conscience.” “He’d better be careful or he won’t have a job,” another commented. All of them laughed.

I didn’t. I didn’t because my double no longer was there. Unlike the woman who’d veered around him outside the Convention Center none of my passengers had seen him. They’d seen only me. Heard who they thought was me.

Despite my preoccupations I was able to get them to the Capitol parking garage where their BMWs and Audis were parked, turn in the Suburban and get into my own little Tsuru for the thirty kilometer drive to my little house north of the city. Weaving through outskirts traffic I realized I wasn’t alone. My hands on the steering wheel seemed to be frozen in place but I continued driving. My double stared straight ahead, fists doubled over his paunch, beard twitching as though repressing words. Who are you? I wanted to ask but I was afraid to. I was afraid he’d answer that he was me, then I’d have to ask Who am I?

I braked for a red light. I know who I am, I assured myself: I’ve always known. Paco Dahbura, no pretenses, no hidden agendas. Mechanic. Chauffeur. Husband. Father. Liked by kids and dogs.

“Good job,” my double grunted. “They listened to you.”

“Me? I didn’t—!”

My double was gone.

Fortunately he didn’t reappear. But I felt his presence shroud me as I opened the gate and parked the car. The sky was a mucky blend of smog and clouds that seemed to push against each other, much as thoughts and sensations were doing in my mind. Something inside me wanted to tell Mary Cruz about the apparition but something else didn’t. How could I explain it? She’d be frightened and think I was crazy. Or shrug it aside as being unimportant. Either way it only would make things worse.

The minute I stepped into the livingroom she perceived that something was wrong. I protested tiredness; she insisted on heating chocolate and serving me a cup. As she snuggled against me to kiss me goodnight I felt my heart stop. What if my double shows up? What if she thinks he’s me and she—? I didn’t dare go any further. If he could take over my voice could he take over my physical body? Make love that I didn’t know about? The icy feeling in my back persisted and I slept badly.

Fortunately I wasn’t assigned Pérez or any other ranking bureaucrats the week after the Council of Bishops reunion.  For three days I ferried the wife of the State Commander of Security and her small bevy of conspirators through Mexico City and points beyond. Ana Roldan compensated her husband’s known adventuring with excursions of her own. Technically she wasn’t authorized to be chauffeured in a state limousine but doing so had become common practice. The governor demanded loyalty and granted favors in return, I and the luxury vehicle among them.

I didn’t particularly like Ana but she was good-humored and treated me well. One of the first times I chauffeured her she impulsively offered me something to gift to Mary Cruz. I refused because, I said, “She won’t take it. She’ll think I’m trying to cover something up.”

“Don’t you ever have ‘little things’ to try to cover up?”

“No.”

She laughed gaily. A big woman in her early forties, she’d maintained her figure and cosmeticized her features but she was open and provocative. Back in the car she’d repeated the conversation and one of her companions—Miriam, I believe, the state accountant’s wife—teased, “Oyen. Maybe we should give him something to cover up?” I blushed and they tittered and giggled as they tossed suggested scenarios back and forth. None of them serious, of course, but often after that Ana Roldan asked for me when she requested a limousine and driver.

With no breeze Mexico City’s Condesa felt gritty, oppressive. Passers by were coughing, spitting on the sidewalk. I got out of the limousine to chat with a gap-toothed fellow selling newspapers, then positioned myself beside the plate glass display of a sporting goods store to wait for Ana and her hangers on to return from a margarita cocktailed diversion.

“Gigolo.”

My double was standing beside me.

“I’m not a gigolo.”

“State employee. Taking women to parties. Overhearing their conversations. Just whose dinero are they spending?”

“That’s not my concern. I, just—”

“Accept it? Like everybody else? Billions diverted from education to pay election bribes? Forty-three students kidnapped, murdered by narcos, soldiers? Journalists assassinated for criticiz—”

“I have a wife. Two kids. That’s—”

Ni modo. You’re part of it.”

“I just—”

“Pontius Pilate.”

“I’m not..!”

My double had disappeared. From the window my reflection growled at me. For years I’d fretted about things the Governor and his acolytes pulled off but I reminded myself that my job was to drive, get people where they wanted to go safely, support my wife and kids. I tried to be the best person I could be. Husband. Father. Catholic. Employee. Add my grain of sand to—

“How did you do that?”

“Do?” I My elbow whacked the window glass as I whirled to face Angelica Massieu. She was eyeing me inquisitively, head cocked slightly to one side.

Tú sabes. Make it seem that there were two of you.”

Reflection? Flaw in the glass? Air contamination? But instead of excuses, “My double,” I blurted, in the back of my mind thinking telling the truth is the best way to lie.

         “And he disappeared? Or did you send him away?”

Pues, I, I have no control over him.”

Angelica’s smile revealed what a pretty woman she must have been when she was younger. “A double,” I heard her murmur, teeth pulling at her lower lip. Then she snapped her fingers and told me that we were to go for Ana and company and drive to Tlalpan.

Reestablished in the limo and on our way Angelica approved a break in the chatter to announce, “Our driver has a double.” Before any of the others could intervene, “I saw the two of them together.”

I shivered, expecting derision. But her companions took Angelica seriously.

De veras? Where did he go?”

“Is he a real person?”

“No, that is…” Despite the traffic, heavy now that it was late afternoon, I managed to explain that sometimes he could be seen, at other times no, but people could hear him and would think I was the one talking.

       “Fascinante!” the state accountant’s wife Miriam intervened. “I’ve often felt like I have a double. I never see it. But I’m aware that she—that another me—is just beyond my grasp.”

Angelica suggested that every person had a double somewhere in the world but Ana called that a contrivance that writers like to use. The doubles we’re talking about, she insisted, are kindred spirits, like invisible twins, beings like us that exist in a slightly different dimension but can project themselves into ours.

“That’s scary!” burst María del Rocío, the youngest of the quartet of women.

“Haven’t you felt it?” Angelica insisted, “sometimes—like when making love, haven’t you felt it? Another presence, another you?”

“It depends on who I’m making love with,” Miriam chided.

All of them laughed but they went on chattering about doubles and their perceptions about them. I tried to block out what they were saying but it was interesting. Interesting  because this coterie of women who seemed to gloss over everything except jewelry prices and political gossip took the presence of doubles seriously. Just before we reached the country club in Tlalpan Ana tipped me double, said she’d cell phone me when they were ready to be picked up and teased, “I hope your double doesn’t spy on us. Or if he does that he can keep a secret.”

“I wish he wouldn’t spy on me,” I replied.

Whether that was true or not I’m not sure. What I was sure of was that having a double who could appear at any time made me uncomfortable.  That I’d told Ana and her sidekicks about him also made me uncomfortable. I realized that now I would have to tell Mary Cruz. Not because she would find out about my double from Ana or one of the others but because his appearances no longer were a secret and I tried not to keep secrets from Mary Cruz.

I waited until the kids were in bed. Mary Cruz switched to an entertainment channel and I said, “I need to tell you about something.”

She listened. Asked a few questions. “You saw him, physically I mean?” “Señor Pérez heard what he said? It wasn’t you saying it?” I repeated the conversation as we were leaving the Council of Bishops as best I could remember it, my double’s reappearance in my car as I was driving home, his calling me a gigolo. Mary Cruz frowned, twirled her fingertips around each other—a little habit of hers—then, “Are you sure it’s a double? And not your conscience?”

“Consciences don’t have feet and ears.”

Mira, we really don’t know what consciences have,” she replied.

The next evening, on the pretext of pulling me into the kitchen to help with slicing fruit for the salad she asked me if I remembered Padre Velasco.

“Of course I do.”

Old now—at least eighty—and somewhat crippled by arthritis and diabetes, he had shepherded Mary Cruz and her brothers and sisters through all the vicissitudes that sabotage growing up a firm and steady Catholic

“We should talk to him. He knows about these things.”

Things being of course my double.

It was an hour’s drive west through shorn hills into the crescent-shaped valley that surrounded Zinalilca. We dropped the kids off to be with their cousins and walked to the simple sixteenth century church, many times over re-plastered and repainted but squat and persevering in its colonial dignity. Padre Velasco greeted us with apoplectic good humor. Though not much taller than me he was broad rather than rotund with an oval face that grooved into horizontal wrinkles when he smiled. Seated facing him in an alcove adjacent the main chapel he listened to my halting description of my double’s appearances.

“Messing with devilish things. The black arts.”

Claro que no, I just—”

“Ha!”

Little gaps between his teeth showed in his grimace. Though his eyebrows were thick he was almost bald; straggly strands of hair jounced past his eyes as he jerked away, fumbling beneath his hassock. “Ha!” again as he extracted an iPhone and pecked at it. Mary Cruz started to say something but he held up two fingers to stop her.

“Devil’s work,” he grunted, trundling around to show me the iPhone’s screen. I had to refocus, look twice, then remembered, yes, the national soccer team was playing Panama. “The only thing in this country more embarrassing than narco traffic is the Tri!” He turned the iPhone over, then showed me the screen again. “But you see them, don’t you?”

Pues, sí but—”

“How did they get there?”

“They, that is—”

“Forget the technical crap I wouldn’t understand it. Did you see them come into this little box that I’m holding? Come through the windows? The door?”

“No padre, they came through the air wav—”

“Invisibly?” The gaps between his teeth showed again as he grimaced—smiled. “They came from thousands of miles away. Through the air. Everybody receives them but nobody sees them come. Magic? The Black Arts?”

I shrugged. He waited, eyes closing into thin horizontal slits.

“There are things we don’t know about, things we don’t understand.,” he lumbered back to where he’d been sitting. “Now this double of yours,” finger lifted he glanced towards Mary Cruz. I gasped. My double was beside her and she was giggling silently, apparently at something he’d said.

“—does an explanation matter? Even if you could explain how soccer teams got into that piece of plastic it wouldn’t change their being there, would it? No. Even though it’s difficult, difficult to accept that with so many standouts, stars, the national soc—, never mind, It’s how we deal with these things that matters. Doubles? They may be angels. Ghosts. Spiritual guides. Foretellers of things to come. Projections we somehow create through the force of our imagination. Or mirror opposites, like Doctor Jek—however one pronounces it—y Señor Como se llama? You know who I mean, the one totally good, the other totally bad.”

The longer Padre Velasco talked the more confused I became. My double nodded as though acknowledging my glare and gave a thumbs up sign. A group of people, two families apparently, trouped across the back of the alcove, the girls in swishy crinoline dresses, the boys in crooked bowties. A car horn alarm outside the church began beeping; when I looked back at Mary Cruz she was clasping the hands of Padre Velasco and my double was gone. Without conviction I thanked the padre as he grumped something about idiot politicians and television no-nothings meddling in sports, then patted my back father-to-son-like and admonished, “Be aware. Be kind. And don’t do anything rash.”

Back in the car as we swerved around long sweeping curves that led out of the valley Mary Cruz put her head on my shoulder. “Just think, now I have two of you.”

“I just hope that—”

“What?”

“Nothing. Es decir, that you know which one—”

With whom I was making love? I’d know, mi amor. We women perceive these things.”

She laughed and I bit my lip. “I believe you,” I murmured.

Whether I did or not I couldn’t be sure.

I wanted to have it out with the damned apparition but I couldn’t bring him into my presence. He appeared and disappeared according to his own whims, usually when I least expected him. Fortunately I didn’t have to deal with Ana Roldan and her accomplices the following week—I already had another assignment and I didn’t want to have to fend off doubles chatter from her and her accomplices. I spent most of the week ferrying state arts commission nabobs from the airport to galleries to warehouses to pricey restaurants, had a day off to spend at home then an evening haul from Toluca to Ecatepec. Pérez was one of my passengers, Jiménez, a special assistant to the governor, another. Ecatepec was a tinderbox pegged against Mexico City’s eastern limits, just far enough from Toluca to execute a semblance of independence that included encrustations with a number of local drug lords.

Just outside of Nicolás Romero we picked up Nemesio Casique. The guy gave me the shivers. Big, with a face that looked like a Guy Fawkes mask without the mustache, he was a go-between between the state government and a narco bunch called Los Pelones. It was always bad business when he showed up and this time was no exception. He, Pérez and Jiménez talked as though I were a deaf-mute, chauffeurs being invisible. Pérez suspected the honchos in Ecatepec were aligning themselves with The Zetas and agreements had to be reached that would keep bloodshed between the Pelones and the Zetas from erupting. The way to do it, Jiménez insisted, was to buy off the Alcalde of Ecatapec and replace his top cop with someone who had Los Pelones approval. Pérez would take care of the Alcalde, replacing the top cop was Casique’s assignment.

Nasty business. Casique assured the others that the top cop would prefer a transfer to San Ninguna—Nowhereland—if his only alternative was an unmarked grave.  The Alcalde was moxie and had strong backing from the opposing wing of the governor’s political party but without his top cop he’d acquiesce for a price—a high price, Pérez grunted, but a battle they need not lose.

My shoulders and the back of my neck felt increasingly twitchy as they continued plotting—the same feeling I’d had the first time my double appeared. I knew he was about to pop up; I just hoped he’d show his face so it wouldn’t be me that Pérez and the others would see. As I drove I took quick peeks at the empty seat beside me but it remained empty. “Hundreds of millions of pesos…” I heard Jiménez mutter. “We’ll get it back,” Pérez assured. “Round up a dozen or more itinerants, blow them to smirthereens and blame the Zetas,” Casique guffawed. “It’ll give the Alcalde a message.”

Still no double. My fingers were trembling and the twitching increased. I eased up on the accelerator and glanced again at the empty co-pilot seat. Damn him! I cursed to myself, he’s abandoned me! I pretended to negotiate a bad spot in the road, aware that despite the cool night air I was sweating. You’re part of it I heard but not from my double, from somewhere inside myself. Buy off alcaldes…round up innocents…San Ningunaland… ricocheted through my mind. Padre Velasco and his iPhone, Angelica Massieu and her lovemaking, Mary Cruz beside my double in church. But now when I needed—

My foot hit the brake, hard. The limousine swerved, then righted itself on the highway. “What the—!” and “Chingada!” my passengers shouted. I grabbed the door handle but couldn’t get it to function. “Paco!” I heard Pérez shout. Just as I stared to answer the door popped opened. I jounced back and forth trying to unsnap my seat belt and stumbled out of the limousine. “I, I—” I squeaked, unable to get my breath, then threw my chauffeur’s cap on the seat. My jacket zipper caught as I tried to squirm out of it. “I, chinga! You—you, I, I’m not par-part of it!” the words more like a little boy’s than an angry man’s. I slapped the chauffeur’s jacket on top of the cap and stumbled away, pissed that my performance had been so clumsy, aware of Casique’s threats but unable to turn and confront him. Instead I started walking—stomping—along the shoulder of the highway, stumbling over rough gravel and trembling from exertion and anger. A part of my mind questioned What in hell are you doing? but a bigger part cursed my goddamned double for not showing up.

Headlights flicked across the highway and I stiffened. They’re coming after me! As the car behind me slowed I checked an impulse to fling myself off the road but didn’t turn. Abruptly the car accelerated—a double-cab pickup, not the limousine—and gunned past me. Shivering from the cold I continued plodding forward, muttering to myself and trying to remember how far along the highway I’d seen the turn off to the little village of Tlalpez.

Then I heard footsteps, almost in unison with mine, coming closer. Casique? A cop he’d called? A murderous assailant? Not wanting to be seized from behind I whirled to confront…

Myself.

No, my damned double!

“Where were you!” I screamed. “Why didn’t you show up? Why’d you abandon me? They couldn’t killed me! They still might! You show up everywhere else but now? No! What kind of pinche double are you? What’m I gonna do now? I’ve lost my job! What about my wife! My kids!”

“You didn’t need me,” my double grinned, his roly-poly body twitching back and forth as if he were about to start dancing.

I wanted to clobber him. I think I even raised my fist to do so when I heard I, I’m not part of it! repeat itself in my mind. “Mierda,” I mumbled and turned abruptly, silently repeating, “I´m not part of it…not part of it anymore” as I stomped away. What the hell, I told myself, I can go back to fixing carburetors, rent a little sheet metal covered taller, work for myself…

Then I heard it. The tune we used to whistle when I was a kid and we were playing soldiers, revolutionaries. Happy times, I thought as I started to whistle along with the whistler following me.

I almost laughed as he started to sing, a tuneful baritone but thinner than mine, and I joined in to chorus….

       …la cucaracha, la cucaracha, ya no puede caminar. Por que le falta, por que no tiene….”

 

First published in Emrys Journal, 2016

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Posted in: Fiction