Literatura en México

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Cinco Décadas de Cuento Mexicano. Antología. Perea, Pitman, Taylor, Tedeschi, Valenzuela

The Posma Jail (English version)

Daniel Sada
Foto: cnipl. INBA

Daniel Sada

Torreón, or “The Place Where the Rails Meet,” as it use to be called, was just a train station a century ago. Of course, there are industries and shops there now: progress? relaxation? Television in English. Piped-in water, said to be pure. A lot of shameless films and more women than you can count: they’re the flowers of the desert, though not much has changed about them --except that now they wear pants! Con men and crazies have also proliferated. There’s plenty of crime, as well as drunkenness, and you hear cumbias, polkas, and ballads coming out of everywhere.

Of course there’s a lot more poverty too, but so what?

That’s the way life is now, according to the rich. In the old days, on the other hand, people lived differently --though not quietly, that’s for sure, because a while later the Revolution rolled through the place and a lot of local people got involved in the fray. But even that, with all its whining bullets and point-blank shootings, turned out in the end to be entertaining. The kids finally had a pastime: seeing who could collect the most cartridge cases. There was a deal man a day, not counting the shoot-outs in which no one was killed. But after a while all the terrifying slaughter tapered off a bit and peace returned. Enthusiasm reigned. Deep-rooted convictions about beliefs began to get distorted once reality reasserted itself again.

The public got an enormous idea of progress fixed in their heads --that is, of doing things like the gringos, because people were needed to make it work. Maybe it was for the reason that the youth used to get married so young and then have armies of kids of their own: to help Torreón grow up beyond a settlement as soon as possible. Al first, those families used to live all scrunched together in boxcars on unused tracks, fifty or so to a car, since they where considered outsiders and pirates that didn’t live like people from town, but preferred to settle in wretched shacks or in adobe huts with roofs made of reed mats. They led lives of jubilation and faith and were especially good runners when trains pulled in. That was when they’d sell chile-filled tacos, snacks, equally thick tortillas, torrents of ice-cream and iced drinks: a great blessed spot for wolfing things down, with the trash left along the tracks when the trains moved on for Juárez or México City, as the case migh be.

Then came a period of chaos that coincided with all that growth until we finally got a president; at the same time “Where the Rails Meet” declared itself once and for all a municipality and was designated an administrative center by somebody higher up. As for its official name, it now became the one we know.

The mayor’s office was provisionally located in one of the train cars, which was a good idea and an economical one, too, and ensured that the new government palace could be built with the requisite calm some distance away. The mayor, among other things, was a gentleman with grey hair like a pennant, a great guy, a real buddy who liked having a drink and giving minor orders that were immediately carried out by his men with rifles and municipal chinstraps, who served as a police force. But apart from them, for strategic and civilian affairs, he had at his disposition a combination advisor-inspector who knew all the new legislation by heart and was also versant in the precepts of Machiavelli. For lesser issues, he had a foppish clerk, a loudmouthed guy in a striped suit and bowler hat --despite the heat-- with a little moustache and fancy manners, who was fast on the typewriter and in whipping himself up almost to tears as he delivered rousing harangues about the nation to throngs of listeners.

One day, by the way, the boss got the idea of taking another rail car, putting it next to the green one that served as the mayor’s office, and setting up a magnificent casino. Keep in mind that the agricultural sector was beginning to bear fruit about this time and that the desert town needed what you might call some amusement for the men who scratched away at the soil every day from sunrise to sunset. It would be a great way for them to refresh themselves. Aside from which, understand, it would be a means of avoiding the violence that occurred out-doors --not all of it, maybe, but a lot-- as well, of course, as the under-the-table sale of moonshine and other things that were even worse. For its part, the local authority would be able to control the betting and any possible lawlessness. Hey, that was the pretext, anyway, because when you get rigth down to it, the whole thing was just a big business deal.

As a peremptory rule, there was to be a cover charge and --why not?-- a ten-per-cent take of the total bets. Some old boxcar was to be fixed up both inside and out, giving it a colourful façade and putting in three metal tables so that the chips would sound like hailstones in a thunderstorm when they were moved about --a noise that was infamous for attracting clients.

There would also be dominoes.

With the same intention, the boss ordered that black and white photos be put up of women lifting their dresses and showing their tamale-shaped legs. And there had to be a name for the place: “Casino on the Lagoon” or “The Whole Town Casino,” although when you thought about it, the main problem was that in reality the boss wanted to get into contact with the future bourgeoisie so they could become a circle of investors, a closed and ultimately exclusive group. With that in mind, he ordered that a brown rug and a turquoise-blue carpet be put in. He would have liked to have had Czechoslovakian mirrors and English playing cards, but it would have made it too obvious that he still didn’t have a decent place to put all these dreams. Ah, a casino like ones in Paris: maybe some day! For the moment he made up an official announcement, and, yes, with oil lamps that would be lit when the sun went down, of course there would be clients. The most powerful men around, he hoped.

The gamblers used to start coming round al about eight o’clock in the evening, carrying pistols in their belts, just in case. They didn’t need to: everything’s all right, come right on in. But someone got killed almost immediately because of a --trap? What did happen is that the community decided it had had enough: there was a great flap and protest about the recent break down in law and order, and, in general, many people begged that the casino be closed. The big shot said no, just to be stubborn. He had the idea of putting the municipal jail into another rail car next to the casino car, which he did, although --careful, now!-- he couldn’t throw the most ardent players (that is, the rich ones) into it; to do so would be to risk his position, and business was going from bad to worse. What he did was arm his six men and give them police hats and then leave it up to his pencil-pushing secretary to give a speech to justify the importance of betting and having a good time.

There was the customary agreement as to spies. A requirement was immediately established for entrance to the casino: depistolization --a rule, in the end, that never worked, because one night during the gaming the rich guys started fighting so hard that they ended up flinging chairs at each other. Then, despite all the injuries and the string of reproaches that was unleashed in the city, there still wasn’t one prisoner to inaugurate the incarceration facility, which made it impertative that someone be put inside, in order for people to take it seriously, but , but who? The inspector-advisor recomended that the boss throw in a few new arrivals from out of town for whatever trumped-up reason he liked just so the jail could truly represent the ultimate in correctional centres.

He’d scarcely finished speaking before the police set out for the most isolated, dilapidated shacks on the outskirts of town to hunt up a few newcomers who above all had to have the faces of wrongdoers and who could be accused of being squatters. It was easy to capture a few. They hauled back the most impoverished ones they could find.

That night, five innocent peasants slept in the train-car jail.

A dark, wretched place.

Without ventilation.

With a terrible stench in the air, one of heat and suffocation.

The prisoners were also uncertain as to how much time they were going to be locked up without food and a place to relieve themselves. They talked together indignantly in the bitter darkness; not a single laugh mitigated what had happened. The boss’s display of power helped him create a resolute image in everyone’s eye of a man capable of terrible zeal. From now on people were sure to be forewarned of what he could do.

All the same, it wasn’t long before the prisoners’ relatives were down on their knees wailing and begging the big guy to let the jailed men go the next day, to which he replied, with a show of grand gestures and angry faces, that they’d better start back heading home if they didn’t want to get a beating instead of perhaps being shot --or at any rate, ending up hurt. He added that he didn’t have to inform them of anything, that the only explanation he would give was based on a very old law that had to do with illegal settlement on private lands, but that the legal codes in which it was written were not presently at hand, and he wasn’t about to go looking for them. The sentence, therefore, whether of a month or a minimum of two nights, would depend on the behaviour of both the prisoners and their families. The sorrowful questions of the relatives were basically cries denouncing the punishment as they argued, quite rightly, that in any case there were lots of other illegal settlers.

Their insistence didn’t last long: just three or four days. As for the prisoners, they endured it all with courage: slowly starving, in agony, and all agreeing with each other at this point. From the first nigth on, as soon as the door was closed, they would begin to kick and hammer with their fists against the metal walls, crying out in despair. Maybe they’d be able to get a bit of sympathy from the guards outside, who would then help them escape: “Go on now, get outta here!” Aside from that, all that was left was a vicious circle of sickness and asphixiation.

They talked about it: there was no way out. To top it off, they had to answer all their most intimate calls of nature right there, although this wasn’t quite the case, because those calls depended on the scraps of food they would get --but from whom? They could only just barely hear any sounds from outside: a noise of a continuous drizzling rain came from the casino next door, and they could hear far-off shots and muffled quarrels. On the other hand, whatever they themselves said sounded muted and feeble.

A stitch, a tiny beam of light shone through the wall at dawn of the first day.

The heavy door of the railroad car immediately slid open just wide enough for a fat hand to throw in three small bread rolls, and then, with no further comment, to close the door on them again with sudden ferocity. That, of course, was their breakfast. The shadow was there, but where was the sustance? They scurried over like hungry animals and fought and kicked each other to tear off a few pieces. The unfortunate sufferers experienced the perversity of survival, hating each other over a crust of bread without even knowing who the others really were. At noon the fat hand opened the door again and left them three oranges and a jar of water. Al suppertime they were thrown a half-kilo of nuts as a joke. Over the following days and nights there was progressively less and less food, and the prisoners used their last remaining strength to pound against the rusted metal walls of the boxcar and beg for water. Oddly enough, no one else --no other victims-- were put in with them.

Just an unexpected half a bread roll or three nuts or a tomatoe.

Apart from the smells of shit and sweat, there was each one’s struggle with his own mental anguish as he resigned himself to his future putrefaction. Their growing anemia gave rise to morbid pleasures, vile and decrepit longings, as they contemplated their filthy deaths --as if dying could ever be anything else.

Every instant was another step on the pathway to nothingness, the well that blots out all possible merit and is thus so friendly and discrete, an illusory future and present that was gradually suffocating and going blind. The openings and closings of the door no longer troubled them; by this time they attributed their misfortune to divine will. Never again would they see their families or walk through Torreón. The legendary feat of staying alive was now hanging by a thread; their growing shortness of breath was endured with a minimum of pride. They would take leave of the world like this, forgiving misfortune itself --which was a woman and an evil one at that.

Yes, the door would finally open once again, and someone would put in a peeled grapefruit or an unpeeled prickly pear that the prisoners were too weak to even reach, viewing such things now as treasures that had lost all value. Ah, delayed agonies and confused memories filed through the hours as incidents of their daily routines flickered through their minds, reduced to details such as an embrace, a wave of the hand, a small courtesy --anything that signified warmth, the goodness of warmth.

Nevertheless, their captors kept leaving them food which they, overcome with affliction, no longer wanted as they had before. Treacherous cravings now began to stitch up their guts, which by now had shrivelled up close to their spines. It was better to think about life, of those last moments when everything indistinct and blurred becomes a beautiful relaxation. They remembered their families, whom they knew full well would now fall into the most implacable and macabre destitution, and thus they said good-bye to their beloved desert, to their children, their mothers. Good-buy, Torreón, which --it was true-- had now become a real town, with dusty streets. In the casino there were disputes, loud arguments over games, and, if money were involved, there was always a twist that led to an outburst o violence and ended up in gunfire. The fact that opposing groups were involved gave rise to crime and then to lots of people who died for the eternal glory of rancher honour. And nobody was ever put in jail for it. Arround their fifth day in prison, a few shots even came right through the metal sides of the boxcar, which in fact was quite beneficial: every bullet-hole, no matter how small, was a salutary filter that let in fresh air and improved their lot. And if they could just drag themselves over and manage to eat it, there was still that food there by the door.

At the end of a week one of them died of hunger; he couldn’t survive going without food for so long, and the others were worried about where to put him. Moreover, their strength too was fading, and their unaccustomed weakness insured that any effort to move him would be unsuccessful. Any desire to help would have to be put off till later, because the truth was that they were all about as dead as he was --just as foul-smelling, bitter, and incapacitated.

It was due to these questions of gangs, truces, and vengeance that an unexpected event then took place on the outskirts of town: unidentified men made off with the boxcar-jail during the night. This might be attributed to a group of new arrivals from somewhere else who perhaps had quickly carried out the manoeuvre of firmly coupling the car to a wood-burning locomotive that was just getting ready to pull out. One tug was enough for the row of boxcars to begin to move off without further incident. There was a tremendous racket as the car’s worn wheels screeched and swayed beneath the mobile jailhouse.

The prisoners, who had thought they were destined to die within a few hours, were overcome with an anxious happiness. Somebody had not only stolen their boxcar, they had also taken along all the others! OK, but so what? Their agony was turning into a judgement of their persecutors, because it worked in at least two ways. That is, they could at random intervals hear deep voices speaking with a tinge of vehemency, and given what had happened, this led them to surmise that the cars carrying the casino and the mayor’s office were directly behind them --and joy was born from their darkness. The casino! That futil luxury was now being carried off! The mayor’s office! With all its papers blowing around!

What happened was that while the train moved onward, the sufferers’ spirits began to pick up as they staggered toward the door and tried to stand up. The crazy guys who had linked together the row of cars may or may not have known there were people inside; maybe they did, but the fact is that a long time later the train rolled in and stopped at Picardías station and the door slid all the way open, flooding the sepulcral space with light and joy.

It was all a mystery for the prisoners, who looked out of the boxcar without believing what was happening. No one was guarding the rails. In fact, once the feat --wich had been carried out by who-knows-whom-- had been confirmed: Run for it! The feeble prisoners jumped out of the car and managed to scramble across the scrubland, hanging onto the bushes and rocks, without worrying about the possibility of getting killed and ready for anything that could happen next. But nobody shot al them, and nobody was hit, either; everything went all right, despite their exhaustion. Then, losing themselves among the cacti, each of them took off in a different direction for home, at least to see how far he would get. Oof! Now they wouldn’t let themselves die; they’d survive to enjoy life with their families. So if one of those prisoners now living comfortably at home reads these lines, may he now know once and for all what is so fervently wished him: that from now on things go the way he wants! *

Translated by Hugh Hazelton

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Reading (Descarga Cultura-UNAM)

Reading at the PEN American Center (You Tube)

"Sobre Salvador Elizondo" (YouTube)

Short Stories Book Registro de causantes (Google Books)

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Fuente: * From the book Registro de causantes. México, CNCA, 1993. Lecturas Mexicanas, Tercera Serie, 82.ViceVersa. Toronto/Montreal/New York, Autumn 1996, # 53.



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