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A Ruby Tattoo

At midnight Peter helps the men carry the equipment from the taxi into the kitchen: processor, printer, speakers, accessories. Richard says in perfect Spanish: “Haremos cinco veces mos de lo que hacemos.” The monitor he sets on the table is a giant sleeping eye without an eyelid.

“Debemos hacer veinte veces eso para hacerles saber como nos sentimos,” a woman says in a surging voice.

Humming agreement and nods come from the others. A computer will make their job easier but can’t help them with everything.

Seven people close around Richard. The three women wear native skirts and huipil blouses, the colorful hand-woven cloth thick and intricately woven. A man moves a light onto the table, casting a pure white circle on it. Richard sets up the machine. The monitor goes on top of the case, printer to one side of it, speakers on the other side, keyboard and mouse in front. The shape of the construction makes it seem he’s building an altar.

“Ilo tendremos aqui todo el tiempo? Sabes que aqui es donde comemos nuestros alimento, no una oficina en dynde planear nuestra lucha.” The woman of the home needs to know when her life will get back to normal.

There isn’t much room in the kitchen, a small box crowded with chairs, appliances, the air filled with the odors of corn and meat made earlier in the evening, and the spices used to cook them, garlic, hot pepper.

It will be safe here until they find a permanent place for it, Richard finishes a long explanation. He straightens, rising above the others.

“¿En donde sero?” the woman asks.

Richard pulls a chair around and sits down. The poke of a button starts an electronic hum and spin of a small fan.

The others press closer to the lighted box, wide-eyed and complimentary. Technology hasn’t yet taken control of the eyes and minds of these people. It’s still fascinating instead of ordinary.

“Iro en algun otro sitio, pero dentro de uno o dos dias,” Richard answers. It won’t be here very long.

He takes a plastic disk from his jersey pocket, slips it into the slot. A click and drag copies a file to the hard drive.

The back of the hand Richard holds over the mouse, just above the wrist, has a tattoo that says FOREVER. Peter had been with him the day he got it. Way back when. A baking Brooklyn evening. They’d drank beer on their stoop, talked to neighbors, walked to an inlet on the waterfront that had benches to sit on, a view of Manhattan below Delancey Street. To their right the navy gray span of the Williamsburg Bridge crossed the East River. On the way back they looked in the window of Cherry Bomb Tattoo. The intricate designs and scripts had them pointing and smiling. A slender man with a goatee came out from behind a heavy black curtain and waved them in. After an over long presentation Richard took him up. “Ruby,” he’d said. “It has to be ruby. It’s her favorite color.” He presented his wrinkle-free hand to the man, jaw tightening as he sat down and waited for the needles to stick him.

A blink on the monitor. A document opens. There’s discussion about it, reading and opining, that Peter has difficulty translating and gives up trying to. Richard deletes something, types something, checks it over. When there’s unanimous agreement, one copy at a time stacks up in the printer bin. It reads: “VENGAN A LA PROTESTA,” “DIGANLE A SUS AMIGOS,” “ACTUEN AHORA.” The anniversary of Emiliano Zapata’s death is three days away. This is only one of the things the computer will be used for.

Two children come in from the bedroom to watch this miracle that’s been delivered to their house by taxi. A computer. Asombroso! Though it’s late they don’t seem tired. The adults do though. One of the men has a produce stand, must be up at four-thirty to be at the Mercado by five when deliveries begin. After this announcement, he drifts out the door. A woman sells dolls and sweaters to tourists, also has to be up, though not as early as the grocer, but she leaves soon too.

The rest stay to write another leaflet and print it out. Richard and Peter go at it as if their own lives and relations depend on it. Working together makes it seem the ten years they haven’t seen each other wasn’t that long a time at all.

Even before the ADO bus unwound down the mountains into San Cristobal, Peter knew what he was coming into. Reports in Hoy had kept him informed in Mexico City and Oaxaca. Supplemented with stories in the English language News. In the past week the people of San Cristobal had been committing acts of civil disobedience. Their leaders were in jail, charged with incitement. Headquarters raided. The few leaders left had to keep the campaign going without offices or equipment; the reason Richard had the computer brought to a house on a dark road.

In Brooklyn Richard was always fighting against something, marching, organizing, writing. Some of the causes were conspicuous: education, gender issues. Others less so: a malfunctioning sewage treatment plant, a neglectful building owner.

Earlier that day, outside Richard’s place near the main road into the centro, he waited for him to finish the conversation he was having with two Indian men.
“There’s a work stoppage planned for Friday,” he told Peter. “We need to get the word around. They were up all last night copying leaflets. We need to make new ones. We got hold of a computer and printer to help out with that.” Richard spoke as if Peter was as involved as he was, the encompassing “we” against the powers that were. Inviting Peter to stay with him, he hadn’t told him all that had been going on in the present. Though Peter knew what had taken place in the past, the undeclared war going on since 1994. The raids and arrests. The military everywhere. Richard made no attempt to try to keep him out of it, assumed, it seemed, that he’d come not only to visit, but to be involved.

Still, Peter needed to ask him: “Aren’t you afraid what might happen if they arrest you? It won’t be as simple as taking you to jail and letting you sleep there a night. You know about the Berenson woman in Peru?”

Richard laughed. “I was in for two months. I’ll worry when they begin to take in the people who don’t have any part in it. Who they say are guilty by association. That’s when no one will be safe. Not even you if they see you with me.”

“Now you have me worried. Should I get a hotel room, become a full-time tourist?”

“Don’t stay if you’re nervous. This is your vacation. I understand the danger. They know about the protest Friday. Someone’s talking. We haven’t found out who yet. And we’re going to be disappointed when we do.”

Later, they went to Cafeteria Nitro, a restaurant just off the zocolo. Their waiter told Richard that two community elders had been taken in a few hours earlier. This wasn’t information that white men from the north needed to know about, Peter thought. The people here didn’t just let them into their homes and lives, or assist them with their cause. But Richard wasn’t like all the others. Peter couldn’t put his finger on why, except to say they must have come to trust his intentions after years of watching and listening, until it was something they saw with clear insight, and that, staring across the table with their cups of coffee and plates of vegetables, tamales, and beans, he also saw again as he had long ago.

Peter wakes to hear voices coming from the front. A discussion in which Richard does more listening than contributing to. They’re not friends. Sounds more of a business matter, serious and official. He hears Richard say his name and has the abrupt fear that the men with him want to speak to him too. Think he’s here to do something he shouldn’t be. Should he have gone to a hotel?

He listens. Thinks they know about the other night. The computer. The leaflets. Sees his name in the U.S. papers. News of a document he’s signed, that’s been taken out of him with force, that admits he came here to conspire against the government.

It’s still dark when he rolls out of bed and stands at the window covered with heavy mesh wire. The official car’s in front, white and blue, the stamp of the regional authority on the door. Bewildered, he appears in the room where two guardia search through a cardboard box of papers they’ve taken out of the closet. They’re not in uniform except for the black automatic handguns strapped to their hips.

“It’s all right, they’re here for me.” Richard doesn’t show the slightest indication that he thinks they might find something that will result in him, them, being taken in. He holds out a hand as if to stop Peter’s progress toward them. “It has nothing to do with you. They know you just got here, you’re a tourist.”

He’s in the doorway in a wrinkled t-shirt and khaki shorts, watching. Sees the papers arranged on the floor in some designation of importance.

One of the guardia kneels next to the box, reviewing each piece of paper he pulls out of it. Certain ones he gives to the other man sitting on the edge of a chair and points at something on each.

Peter looks at them with his head leaning to one side, as if preparing to avoid a punch he expects to come his way. A nod toward him from the man on the chair. In English: “Passport. I need to see some document. Get it for me.”

The return to consciousness brings the realization that whatever trouble Richard’s in includes him too. It won’t matter what Richard says about why he’s here. These men will believe anything they want to in order to get the results their superiors ask of them. They didn’t come here this early to leave empty-handed.

“Get it, now, will you,” Richard says as if to show the men he’s willing to cooperate, or to deflect their attention away from the papers.

When Peter appears in the room the men continue looking at the papers, putting some aside, stacking others. He brings the passport to the one who asked for it, holding it out. The man continues reading the sheet in his hand, bends to put it on top of the pile that seems more important than the others. He says something to his partner, a swift, sure combination of words that makes Peter think they’ve found the thing they came looking for, or something very close to it.

The man stands, takes his passport, walks past him into the room he sleeps in, the one Richard uses as a study. “It’s all right. They need to look through your bags. Don’t worry.” Richard speaks loud enough so the man in the next room hears him.

The one in the room with them lifts the box from the floor onto the table, sits down and picks another paper from it.

The man comes out of Peter’s room. “I’ve found these.”

“Some are questionable, he thinks,” Richard summarizes what follows.

The man has an armful of items: a biography of Diego Rivera, a travel book on Mexico with writing in the margins. But it’s the notebook with a marbleized cover, the pages hand numbered, that holds the man’s interest. He fingers through it, pausing, going on. Peter wonders if he can make out the sloppy handwriting that might seem like some secret code, that he’s sure only he can read, or if he’s looking for certain words that he might use to support whatever he wants from him.

The man says something to Richard. Seems only to want to talk about him, maybe believing Peter doesn’t know enough Spanish to understand. “What’s in it?” Richard says.

“Writing about places I’ve been, Casa Azul, National Palace, Monte Alban. They’re open to the public, for tourists, aren’t they?”

The man sets Peter’s things next to the stack of papers that were set aside.

“They’re going to take them?” Peter says.

“Don’t know,” Richard says. “Looks like it.”

The man finishes with the box. Leaves it on the table. The other one hands the notebook to him. The man looks at the first few pages, closes it. He and Richard have a brief conversation. The man’s gestures assist the translation for Peter. Richard goes into the bedroom. When he comes out in an ochre shirt and faded jeans, the men’s faces don’t change.

“You’re staying, they don’t want you. Take my keys. Call this number, tell Helen where I am. She should know about this.”

The perception comes: the rally’s two days away, they’ll keep Richard until it’s over. The evidence they’re carrying away isn’t anything they can’t get on the street. But reason enough …

Richard and the men leave. The men with a stack of pamphlets, reports, and old newspapers, not Hoy or others you get at the newsstands, but the four page tabloids that struggle to get money for ink, the kind he and Richard put out as undergraduates to oppose the Administration, Student Council, whatever. His guide and notebook go with them too. Just in case, he thinks, they feel they need to come back for him. Either way, he’ll never see them again.

The car drives away. Peter bolts and bars the door. He’s dazed, the resentment and wrong about what just happened makes him feel as Richard had all these years, confused, angry, wanting to do something about it.

The computer was taken from the kitchen of the home it was in. The guardia had gone to it with Richard. The pamphlets and computer disks were also taken. All of the equipment that’d been brought the other night was gone. The occupants of the house too.

“The children are with other family,” he’s told in the office by Helen, a woman who speaks English with a German accent. She’s the owner of the hotel the computer had been stored at.

He stands slumped at the desk in the manner of a tired tourist inquiring about a room, talking to this middle-aged woman with curly pale hair and tanned skin.

Her husband Raymond was arrested too. Just where they were all taken, there was some question. The local jails were full. The guardia were at their house early in the morning too.

They took many documents, Helen explains. Years of work, minutes of meetings written up on the dining room table, books and pamphlets that hadn’t been formally published, but read and passed on. All of it was intended to move the mountain that kept the ownership of land from those it belonged to, who’ve been here centuries longer than anyone else.

“I’d like a room,” he tells her. “Don’t think I should stay at Richard’s. What if they come for something else? What would I do then?”

It’s a small hotel with 14 rooms. The one he’s given away from the street is quiet. He sits on the chair near the window. The mat by the door has a flowing succession of cascades and a name under it, Agua Azul. Richard promised to take him there this afternoon, to swim and hike. There was a spot beyond the tourist area where women went topless, sometimes you could swim and sunbathe without a suit. He knows this is what Richard had in mind.

That was one of two subjects that took up an hour and a half of conversation at Caféteria Nitro. The other was about Richard’s life here. It was an easy decision he said, to want to stay all this time. The fight for land and honor was honest. There was no compromise the government could propose that would make them feel they’d been paid back for centuries of discrimination and exploitation. Somos la dignidad reveled. He talked about this as if talking about the possibility that a paradise would be created when it was resolved.

“We won’t accept anything short of that,” he said.

Up there, this was how he referred to New York, everything, even important matters, had the feel of public relations campaign that made it something other than it was, not a thing or issue, but an unreality that everyone believed. “Before I came here I had an image of myself out of place, never going to the right parties, doing that whole thing you need to do to get anywhere or anything done. I had to leave. But you know that. Maybe there was nothing more for me to fight for there.”

Why hadn’t they taken him? Did they know he was incapable of action without Richard? Or was it that he was from the States, not worth the trouble that would come with arresting him? A low level State Department attaché asking what he did besides come to visit an old friend? That would make lots of bad press that would favor the rebels. They didn’t want any of that, he thought.

There’s no one to call and talk to. Not one person in San Cristobal to ask questions about Richard. Should he be helping him? The next day he writes down everything he’ll need to say and then searches for the jail. It’s on a back road east of the zocolo, next to the police station. After an inquiry, he waits outside, expecting to be told where Richard’s been taken to. He’s the only one there. Wondering. The only one who doesn’t know.

Across the street, the shops in a one-story pastel green building keep him supplied with coffee, plastic containers of water, fruit and nuts that he consumes sitting on some steps, hoping each time the door to the jail opens it’s someone coming out to tell him what he wants to know.

“No el ahi,” an officer waves him off.

Back at the hotel, Helen tells him. Richard and her husband are in a prison near Villahermosa. “They go around and take anyone they feel like so they don’t have to contend with them at the protest. I’m here day and night now without any help. I don’t know when my husband’s coming back or if they’re going to come here and shut this down.”

In his room Peter feels dazed, as if he’s been in the direct line of sun for hours without drinking any water. Laying on top of the faded comforter that covers the soft bed, he can’t think of what to do next. What can be done for Richard in a country he knows enough of the language to just get by on and that’s all?

He’ll wait until Richard gets out. Hopes it doesn’t go on too long. He has another week before he has to go back to New York. Will there be a trial? He has the feeling of already abandoning him. He didn’t try to defend him when the guardia came to take him away. Richard despised anyone who kept the things others deserved away from them. Who used power and language to help themselves to the land, goods, and services that everyone deserved but only a few got.

“What did I expect when I planned to come here?” he thinks.

A hunger strike by some of the prisoners began on the bus when they were being taken to prison. Richard was one of them, Helen says his name. In the image he brings up he sees Richard’s already weakening condition, dark sagging arcs below his eyes. The strike’s 24 hours old, will continue past the time of the rally.

Peter spends the afternoon in the Mercado, the most famous of San Cristobal’s sites, where Chomula, Zinacantan, and Huistec Indians come from the outlying villages to sell their goods. He returns to his room three hours later with a bag of fruit, some guerilla dolls, and a new notebook to replace the one taken by the guardia.

Later, he’s sits on the stool behind the registration desk. He’s taken over for Helen for a few hours. He spends the time handing out keys to the guests. Makes sure any newcomers, there’s one couple, fill out the form before assigning a room to them. In between he reads the book he took off one of Richard’s shelves. A story about an anti-clerical purge in southern Mexico, a nameless hard-drinking priest on the run from the police.

The flip of a page, his mind drifts. He has a vision of Richard at the computer the night they brought it in the kitchen. His fingers tap the keys swiftly as he writes and removes sentences, describing the rally, why having it take place on the anniversary of Zapata’s death was important. And then it strikes him: he’s lost his way in a world it’s easy to do that in, where distractions distracted from more distractions. Richard had been right on that point too. He sees himself as a ghost, hanging around the scene of something important without having any role in it.

The hunger strike in prison goes past the night of the rally, an event that focused mostly on those that had been taken in.

Alone in his room, under the ceiling fan that makes a tiny pang with each turn, Peter says things that he hears as if spoken by someone else. He can’t trick himself into not agreeing with them. Richard will starve to death for a cause that will yield him nothing when it’s over. Does that while he plays tourist, walks around, eats and drinks. In the mornings, he drags himself up, starts it all over again, the walking, sitting in Cafeteria Nitro, replacing Helen at the desk a few hours, a shot of tequila before he goes to sleep.

On his last afternoon Helen comes out to talk to him. He’s eating a roll and fresh fruit at the metal table outside his room. The yard around him is a sight to behold, with palm trees, hedges shaped in cones, ovals and circles, beds of flowers in full bloom, exotic plants. Helen’s large face, curly hair and wide brim hat pulled down almost to her eyebrows seems to belong to a woman who should be living somewhere other than San Cristobal. An English country estate. A Westchester suburb.

Peter stops chewing, speaks carefully so as not to shower her with the ground up food in his mouth. “Is something wrong?” he asks.

She smiles. “No, no. It’s nothing at all. I wanted to make sure I saw you today. You’re leaving tomorrow and I’m going to the prison in the morning. I want to thank you for helping me out here, listening to me go on about Raymond.”

“I needed to talk about Richard too. And how did you know I was leaving?” He breaks the pause by picking up the peach and biting into it. His mouth’s busy, but his eyes look at her. She says nothing. Stares off at something that might need her attention. At last he says, “If I did, I don’t remember. I wasn’t sure until last night, I’d been thinking of staying a few extra days.”

“Word got to me through Raymond from Richard. He wanted to say bye to you before you left. He’s sorry you didn’t get to spend more time together and hopes you get the new job you want.”

Peter laughs. He can’t help it. Of what importance was his going back to New York and changing jobs when Richard was in prison on a hunger strike that seems to have no end? How can he think of something like that in there?

Helen pulls a chair away from the table and sits with him. He looks down at the food, the peach with bites taken from it, the crumbs, the half-full Styrofoam coffee cup. He knows now why he came here, why he always found Richard interesting, admired him even though they hadn’t done anything together in a long time. It’s there, as obvious as Helen sitting across the table from him, the simple fact that he doesn’t know anyone else like him. That’s all there is to it.


Paul Perilli


The Brooklyn Rail


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