by Jorge Icaza (1906-1978)
Translated from Spanish by Richard Gabela
Several times a day Don Ernesto Morejón Galindo, Chief-Director of the Bureau of Economic Investigation, abandoned his small office to monitor the attendance of the employees in his charge. Don Ernesto was a man of uneven temperament. Completely uneven. When he was in a good mood, he was the kind to brag about being a Don Juan and make racy revelations about himself, much like a mestizo woman from the vegetable market or a newcomer from the countryside. With graphic and pornographic gestures of a sex addict, he would whisper into the ear of his next confidant: “What a wild night, my dear cholo. I served myself three young ladies. Two of them turned out to be virgins.… He-he-he…All for free.” But when it came time to publicly reprimand his henchmen (as he inwardly referred to his subordinates) he swelled with omnipotence and meted out insults left and right. In times like these, when his domineering arrogance exploded, the most grotesque characteristics of his fat face stood out: his cheeks resembled a pair of pink buttocks, his lips quivered like mud, bilious drool hung between his teeth, a diabolical flame burned in his pupils.
Every year, in late November, dark thoughts brewed in the minds of the most delicate, ambitious staff members of that office, where Luis Alfonso Romero y Flores, by art of audacity and stroke of good fortune, now found himself. The intrigue, gossip, and anonymous notes — full of veiled threats and sordid proposals — slithered around that office like reptiles on fallen leaves. At that time, the Chief-Director Morejón Galindo, swallowing a sort of shameful envy, was reviewing the list of delinquent tax payers, promissory notes, accounting records, as well as the names of the gentlemen over whom he should have exerted control or coercion but had never been able to. Despite his position, he had never been able to accomplish his goals. A series of obstacles, far greater than his legal authority — such as nepotism in a web of corruption, as well as his inability to remove certain officials from office — made him fear for his own career, as he knew of other bureaucrats who had put their faith in the system only to have their careers cut short as a result. But he… He considered himself an honest man. It was the henchmen, the individual or individuals responsible for acting on his behalf, who always complicated the tragedy.
That year, after a great deal of doubt and insomnia, Don Ernesto thought he had finally found the savior, the incorruptible judge he had been hoping for. So one morning, before entering his private office, he appeared in the large room where his subordinates worked—his hat pulled down to his brows, an arrogant demeanor, a fierce gaze.
“I was thinking about you,” he announced as he approached the chulla Romero y Flores’ desk. “About you for the annual audit. About you…”
“About me, sir?”
“About you, I said!”
“Who else? Who else could I possibly trust with such a difficult, sensitive assignment? You mustn’t make excuses. You must obey orders. You’re an employee.”
“You’ll go alone. Alone! Enough with the delays. Enough with the out-of-control frauds. Enough…Understood?”
“Yes, of course. I’ll do what needs to be done.”
“That’s right! You…”
“I’ll bring to account everyone who has not complied with the law,” said Romero y Flores, abruptly regaining his habitual cynical tone, which served to cover up his ignorance and cholo vulgarity. Indeed, in a zealous effort to sound correct and proper, he perfectly rolled out each R and articulately pronounced each double L.
“Very good. There are certain sacred duties, my dear young man. Sacred… We must curb the corruption of payrolled scoundrels, powerful crooks, honored hypocrites, incompetents, cretins. Well… In short, you’ll go,” affirmed Don Ernesto, reluctantly suppressing a bout of anger and insults—signaling morbid fear. On his lips of juicy caucara boiled the names of prominent leaders and inaccessible officials. People who could ruin him at the slightest slip up. People before whom he had to smile gratefully when in public. People who upon rotating in the heights became embedded in them even more. From one year to the next… The same faces. The same names. The same families. The same methods. And he? No… He had never been able to ascend to… To his goal, to his dream. A ministership… An ambassadorship… Why not, dammit? Ah! Because they clung to the tremendous inviolability of tradition, of custom, of pompous surnames, of bureaucratic heritage. Impossible to overthrow them. Impossible to betray them without anyone noticing or suspecting the sacrilege.
“I’ll do it, I’ll go, sir,” affirmed the chulla with menacing arrogance, while in the depths of his subconscious arose the perspective of a strange greedy desire. He had heard about the rich pickings to be gleaned in those jobs.
“Thank you, thank you,” the Chief-Director managed to murmur, his face softening into a sweet expression and an amiable smile.
“Ready for anything. I knew my heart couldn’t deceive me. You will be… You are… Well… I understand myself… With an iron fist, eh? Of iron.”
“As you order, sir,” concluded Romero y Flores. However, when he observed his colleagues—bureaucrats of all ages and conditions—he found himself submerged in a wave of adverse glances and whispers that emitted all of the pestilence that is carried in the hearts of men with an insecure, liquidable, and cancerous job. In a wave of silent outcries: “Why?” “Who crowned the chulla king?” “I … Twenty years … I spent my life working here….” “So my honesty doesn’t count for anything, my beautiful handwriting….” “He’s an imbecile, an intruder … He knows nothing….” “A street dog, that’s what he is … I know him … People like him are just lucky….” “What will he do about the financial statements? How will he handle the audits? I … I just play dumb … Hee-hee-hee … I have an accounting degree … If asked how much is one times one, he’ll answer: I cannot say for sure if it’s two or three….” “Ooh … The children’s pension fund will be ruined … The priests, the nuns, the good people … They’ll have to return to public schools… where cholos go….” “They’re messing with the wrong guy, dammit … I’ll use my power and influence … Anonymous letters to the Ministers, to the President of the Republic….” “I’ll squeal to the press … Since when did you have a press, you moron? It belongs to them … Money is all that matters … Money … oh!”
Based on appearances, no one seemed to be happy with the Chief-Director’s orders: their eyes gleamed with hatred, their lips were dry and bitter, their skin was the color of bile, and their faces were creased in sickly sneers. No words could describe the absurdity of the Chief-Director’s decision! Romero y Flores, using and abusing his attitude of “his honor, the big boss” — inherited from his father — responded to the troop’s outcry with a haughty and defiant glare, from which everyone could read: “What are you complaining about? Nobody better mess with me… I’ll crush you….”
But it was Don Ernesto Morejón Galindo, with his uncanny ability to read his subordinates’ minds (identical destinies, similar experiences) who foiled the daring and cunning protest. With sarcasm and mockery not subject to appeal, he warned aloud:
“I hope everyone agrees with me. Who? Who can complain? Rise up. Speak up. I know what I’m doing! And I’ll pulverize the first one who complains to me … I … You know me. When I’m nice, I’m nice … When I’m upset … Aaah! Oooh!”
Immediately, with the basic ductility with which rebellion can change to humility, or hatred to fellowship, for those who find themselves at the whim of a powerful, invisible and constrictive circle, the explosive threat vanished from the face of the choir of bureaucrats, just as it was about to shoot forth its poor venom. In its place surged the mask of the innocent, slobbering apology: “No… I am not annoyed, sir… On the contrary… Look at me… Look at how I’m smiling… Hee-hee-hee….” “There’s an understanding among whites… With me it’s different, dear boss… You yourself know… With you wherever, whatever….” “The decision is brilliant… Bril-li-ant… A real success….” “He arrived as a relative of the Big Boss. He’s our most powerful ally… We’d never had anyone like him before. So what’s the matter?” “All of us… All of us are happy….” “There’s no reason for you to get that way… Like that….” “Whatever you order….”
When the magical change occurred — just as he had predicted — Don Ernesto let out a loud snort that sounded like a balloon bursting. He then turned to the general accountant and ordered:
“Yes. Listen to me well. Ensure that Mr. Romero y Flores has everything he needs to complete the year-end audit. Credentials, cadasters, records, documentation. Explain everything to him. He must act in conformity with the law.”
“Very well, sir.”
“He must act on my behalf. I will grant him special powers. Without special powers he won’t be able to accomplish anything.”
“Absolute special powers,” concluded the Chief-Director, placing a reassuring hand on the shoulder of the clerk chosen for such a crucial task.
From the pedestal of a pride that was foreign to his lifelong ambition to become a gentleman of means and power, the chulla Romero y Flores surveyed his colleagues. And as he looked at them hunched over their work like tiny question marks, viscous and insignificant, an agony of cold chills assailed him, his emotions oscillating between compassionate contempt to the fear of becoming one of them forever. He had given his colleagues mocking yet befitting nicknames (as part of an instinctive game) once he got to know them better. Designations he kept secret in order to flatter his aristocratic reveries, his hopes of being the owner of a large estate through a woman’s inheritance, with money he thought he could fetch by marriage. He referred to his desk neighbor, old man Gerardo Proaño, who had a humble tendency to conceal other people’s flaws, as “the hungry longo“; he had sunburned skin, a droopy mustache, and protruding cheekbones. The white-looking calligraphers Timoleón Lopez and Antonio Lucero were “just a couple of pretentious chullas” because of their sickly preoccupation with dressing well; their clothes were always neatly ironed, any holes were finely patched, and they wore bow ties and breast pocket handkerchiefs. Don Pedro Castellanos was “the historical mummy”; he had a parchment face, eccentric eyebrows, and wrinkles of commanding expressions — the result of a glorious military career ruined by a failed coup d’etat. Jorge Santos Pavón was “the political mummy,” a man with bilious-colored skin and mocking lips who bore the surname of disgraced senior bureaucrats. Julio Cesar Benavides (the chief director’s confidant) was “the poor doggie” because of his fawning, drooling smile, and the evasive eyes of a güiachishca. Gabriel Montoya, tall, dry, funereal, as if carved out of a walnut tree, was “the umbrella case full of failures” due to a series of crazy adventures: stints as a tango singer in Buenos Aires, a dishwasher in New York, a language comedian in Central America, a smuggler in Cuba, and a bullfighter in Spain. Nicolás Estupiñán, a man with restless little round black eyes and the snout of a rat, was “the fox of gossip and slander,” because he’d been born with the pride of the free press in his blood: typographer grandfather, reporter brother, linotypist father. Fidel Castro was “a chagra aspiring to minister” because he was a lustrous, well-groomed man who was always bowing and smiling—and had a continual supply of intrigues and letters of recommendations. Humberto Toledo, the secretary, was “the bitter dwarf” because he was short and frequently spewed insults and obscenities. Don Juan Núñez, the general accountant, a man all too comfortable in shady bureaucratic dealings, was “the drainless swamp of grudges”; he had droopy eyelids, slack cheeks, and nicotine-stained fingers and teeth. Despite this torrent of mockery, which defended and justified his selection, Romero y Flores realized with abhorrence that in the eyes of these men, he was nothing more than a poor devil full of inexperience and vanity.
Before leaving for the day, Luis Alfonso neatly arranged the papers on his desk, stroked the newspaper that he always kept well-folded in the bottom pocket of his jacket, put on his hat and, with contemptuous swagger in his gait, left without saying goodbye to anyone. He had met with Don Ernesto twice more that afternoon. He was again lectured about the supreme law, the absolute special powers, the enormous responsibility of his mission, the honesty that he was required to display, and the public ridicule that his office faced. In an effort to disguise his moral sensibility, which was unaccustomed to such lectures, he widened his eyes in amazement and indignation, moving his head in a manner indicative of his readiness to launch into a ferocious attack. Indeed, the strange threat from the incorruptible judge was stretched to its fullest height.
Confident that he would triumph over the untouchable scoundrels and high-society fraudsters, the young man received the paperwork, notices, accounts, and orders from the old accountant the next day.
“A fortune in numbers, my dear friend. Numbers, numbers…”
“Which I intend to convert into money.”
“You must proceed with caution. Be very careful!”
“You’ll come across those who are referred to as ‘the nation’s elite’: bankers, landowners, militarists, friars, politicians… A candidate for the Presidency of the Republic.”
“I know them all,” proclaimed the chulla, maintaining the sense of importance he’d felt since the previous day.
“Are they friends of yours?” asked the employee with the droopy eyelids and slack cheeks, with the awe and respect of a huasicama at the scent of “his honor, the big boss.”
“Ah! In that case… Look here… here….”
On the street, laden with files, the newly-minted tax inspector grew anxious as he considered who’d be the first victim. “A friend that might… A friend? He-he-he…” The delight produced by his lie to the general accountant manifested itself in an idiotic joyous grin. Instinctively, he ran his hand across his face, attempting to wipe away that imprudent outburst that somehow injured his dignity. “Who then? Don… What’s his name? Ramiro Paredes y Nieto… Candidate for President of the Republic… Ohhh, sweet mama….” He had frequently read in the newspapers—he actually believed newspapers—about all the merits and virtues attributed to that gentleman. He thought: “He must be flawless, generous, honest, good… The most important citizen of the homeland… Oh! But what about the past due accounts? Did they lie to me at the office? Why? For what purpose? Don Ernesto Morejón Galindo… The bureaucrats… Envy… Pure envy… I’ll see, dammit… I’ll see….” He looked around him. A dazzling sun silhouetted the scenery of old colonial eaves, curved balconies, adobe walls, and two- or three-story houses, on streets that seemed anxious to stand tall. He advanced downhill on the sidewalk in an Indian trot. In that instant, however, he became painfully aware of how ridiculous he must have appeared, like a young, diligent Indian running errands. He slackened his pace — gradually. His class, his authority, his dreams… And as he crossed the Great Square, his profound disdain for the people who under that sun laid bare their everyday talk of complaints and memories—retired militarists, disgraced politicians, conspirators lurking for the propitious moment in which to climb through doors and windows of the Government Palace—caused him to stretch and take a deep breath until his chest puffed up like a rooster’s.… “My importance… My honesty… They’ll take me far… Friend and protector of a Candidate for the Presidency of the Republic … For the Presidency… He-he-he…”
“Is Don Ramiro Paredes y Nieto in?” the chulla Romero y Flores asked of the man who emerged to greet him.
“Don Ramiro? Did you ask for Don Ramiro?”
“He’s not in.”
“Well, the thing is, I…”
“I’m from the Bureau of Economic Investigation.”
“Ah! Oh! Pardon me.”
“I’m here about the account.”
“I had no idea that you… I… I’m the general assistant.”
“Good, very good.”
“Come, come right in. This way, sir.”
“This is Don Ramiro’s office. You see? Abandoned… Practically abandoned…”
“I’m sure you understand me.”
“I don’t understand anything,” murmured the new tax inspector, inhaling the cellar odor in the air.
“Well… I was hoping to get a chance to talk to him.”
“He only comes here on occasion. I look after the office. I’m at your service for whatever you require. Just ask.”
“On occasion,” repeated Luis Alfonso reproachfully, with a stern look. He had the special powers, hence the authority to demand that the accused appear before him.
“The thing is… Well… The boss is the boss,” muttered the general assistant, without comprehending the young man’s importance or daringness. For him, like most others, Don Ramiro Paredes y Nieto was a kind of taboo that floated in the sacred heights that belonged to the masters of the country.
“No, my friend. He’s an employee and therefore accountable to the Bureau of Economic Investigation.”
“He’s the official,” corrected the old bureaucrat, staring firmly at his interlocutor behind a pair of iron-framed glasses. His eyes, which were watery and bloodshot, effortlessly shifted between expressions of adulation, malice, and derision.
“It’s all the same.”
“No. Some obey, others command, give orders. We…”
In order to avoid unnecessary discussion, the chulla, feeling somewhat lost, changed tactics:
“And how is this place kept running without him?”
“I run things around here.”
“Ah! You. Very good. I understand now. So you’re in charge…” he concluded, resuming his tax-inspector demeanor. And, without another word, he opened the files he was carrying on a large dusty desk of dinosauric proportions that undoubtedly belonged to Don Ramiro.
The young man’s energetic and defiant attitude momentarily disconcerted the old clerk who, in search of an explanation that fit his experience, surmised: “What’s this man’s deal? Someone seems to be prodding him. Someone powerful: Archbishop… General … Minister … Today he’s down … Tomorrow he may be up … These pompous chullas are a real nuisance.. He must be fishing for a high administrative post or a wealthy wife in murky waters… I’ll inform him….” And without being asked, dragged along by his characteristic attitude of gossip and veneration, he informed him:
“Don Ramiro’s very busy. He’s said to hold seven posts. Seven major posts. Seven incomes! He’s a patriot. One of the continent’s greatest patriots. A universal man.”
“It’s common among members of the upper crust these days. They’re talented at everything.”
“At every abuse… At every selfishness…” the chulla thought to himself, observing his informant with pity and disgust. The man was a small, greasy bug as wrinkled as the instep of the painful shoes he wore. He was dressed in an old-fashioned suit, with white dandruff on his collar, patched elbows, shiny knees, and the smell of tobacco, a hangover, office paper and ink — twenty years of complicity and unrest.
“At everything,” the young man repeated aloud.
“On the other hand, his associates…”
“You’re one of them, aren’t you?”
“If I tell him what he wants to know, he might…” the nearsighted man thought to himself. “The financial statements. He won’t know… Not about that….” He then rubbed his hands together like a Jesuit before concluding:
“But not in the way you might be thinking.”
“Ah! Better, much better.”
The conversation then moved from excuses to twisted discords. That’s how the chulla discovered that Doña Francisca, the Presidential Candidate’s wife, managed her husband’s electoral campaign finances and thus administered that office’s accounts and its funds.
“She doesn’t come here either?”
“On occasion. However, she calls me almost every day. She comes from a prominent family. From the noblest,” the general assistant insisted, eager to demonstrate how difficult and pointless the undertaking of a proper audit would be.
“I know,” Romero y Flores murmured as he leafed through the evidence.
“You know? I don’t think so.”
“But you don’t know about the other thing.”
“What other thing?”
“Well, about… Don Ramiro’s love affairs. When it comes to women, he’s a goat.”
“A goat?” asked the young man as he thought: “Just like Don Ernesto. They all act like satyrs. Could it be a mark of nobility?”
“Yes,” affirmed the old man. He was clearly attempting to delay the battle until he could receive orders from his boss.
“I thought he was a serious man.”
“In other respects, he certainly is. In all of his speeches, he’s a champion of Christian morality. Haven’t you heard him speak? Ah! Oh! What gift of gab!”
“And your point is?”
“The devil can’t go without getting his fill. And since he’s so intelligent.”
“Don Ramiro. He writes marvelous love letters. What style! Pure style. They say he’s the best author in the world.”
“In the world?”
“That’s what those who know say. He employs one of his girlfriends as a secretary in the Main Publications Department, where he also serves as the Managing Director. I’m sure you know her. She’s known as ‘The Nun.’”
“Prior to who she is now, she was a nun of the Sacred Heart….He-he-he….”
“The Nun,” repeated Luis Alfonso to himself mentally, picturing the mouthwatering curves of that woman, who he only knew by sight. But what did that matter to him? What? His duty…The financial statements…That was the main thing.
“All right, my friend. Let’s get to work. I want the account,” announced the young man, emulating Don Ernesto’s brazen attitude.
“Yes, sir. I want to look over the account, to audit it, to…”
“It’s ready. Quite ready. Sixty typewritten pages. All in perfect order,” admitted the old man as he searched for the requested records, nervous by the conversation’s sudden change in tone.
“I’d like to see them.”
“Yes. It’s right here,” concluded the Candidate’s clerk, handing over to the tax inspector some papers he took from a drawer of the dinosauric desk.
With the poise and ease of an expert in the field, Romero y Flores settled in an armchair and began comparing the data in his paperwork with the items in the account that the nearsighted man gave him. He pretended to know what he was doing. Behind his ever-changing mask, which at that moment was one of an experienced accountant — a sullen brow, an occasional pondering pause, a persistent mumbling of monosyllables and quantities — his suspicion against the general assistant twisted into a growing obsession: “He wants to make a fool of me. No! I’ll denounce him. But how? I’m unable to pinpoint the fraud. But the fraud exists! It exists! Where? Wheeere? Don Ramiro and Doña Francisca were duped by this bastard. I’m sure of it. Could they be in on it? Impossible. They’re such wonderful people. I’ll request an invoice review. The invoice review suggested to me by the ‘the drainless swamp of grudges.’ One step at a time…”
The old man, timid and nervous as a rat, pretended to be diligently looking over notices and ledgers. He was unable to suppress his mocking spirit too. He had discovered from the very outset, by the unusual manner in which he had commenced his work, that the so-called tax inspector had no idea where he was standing… “He acts as though… No, little guambro… He’s way off the mark… He’s peeing outside the bowl… He-he-he… The scam… Everything appears to be in order on paper… But…”
“The supporting documents for account 585,” the chulla demanded abruptly, recalling something he’d been warned about at the office.
At the unprecedented request, the general assistant looked at his interlocutor in awe. It wasn’t fear… It was that…. No one had ever had the audacity to request those documents so casually before. No one! When the Congress of the Republic did it, it used a process full of apologies, secret sessions, sugar-coated reproaches — like a sinner before God the Father, like a rebellious Indian before “his grace, the big boss.” And at the end, the country’s highest authority conferred on Don Ramiro a vote of applause.
“Did you hear me? I said the receipts for account 585,” continued Romero y Flores, emboldened by the old man’s reaction.
“I’m afraid I can’t do that, sir.”
“What? Are you refusing?”
“Perhaps you’re unaware. That account is for special expenditures. Classified expenditures. Those pertaining to homeland security.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“According to the law, only Doña Francisca…”
“I meant to say… That only Don Ramiro… I… I’m just a poor employee. My income…”
“But you just said…”
“You can tell a lot about a man by the size of his income, like an animal by its footprint. And me… You already see how I am.”
In search of an amicable understanding, one free of complications, the old man continued:
“Sacred for us, for the small taxpayer, for the man on the street, for the chagra, for the cholo, for the Indian.
“It’s not the same for me,” squealed the new tax inspector, thinking of his special powers.
“I used to think the same way about myself many years ago when I was a young chulla like yourself. But work and experience….”
“Absurd,” muttered Romero y Flores, sneering contemptuously. He felt wounded by the “young chulla” remark, by the comparison, by that aspect of himself he meant to keep hidden.
“It’s the same thing.”
“Well, as you please. But on the other hand they… The officials. The ones who bring the country joy by enriching themselves.”
“Please note that I haven’t said a word. God forbid I should ever speak of people of high society. We should never stick our noses in their business.”
“When something isn’t right, I believe we have a duty to do just that.”
“No, not in that account.”
“I’ll…” the chulla threatened, chuckling sarcastically as he thought: “I’ll be protected by the law, public opinion, the Chief-Director.”
After interpreting the young man’s thoughts with great intuition, the general assistant replied:
“You believe that the law, that the bosses, that…No. When a man is ruined there is no law nor boss that can save him.”
“That’s what you say.”
“The law and the bosses are like Don Ramiro’s subordinates. He has seven departments under his command. If it’s not from one angle, it’s from another. It’s a serious thing.”
“Okay. Let’s focus on the last two years. That’s the fair thing to do. It’s the honest thing to do. Don’t you think?”
“I would advise you not to…”
“Fulfill my duty?”
“Not really. Everything can be worked out. ”
“Eh? What are you insinuating? Never!”
“Nothing, nothing, sir.”
Despite objections from the old man, who moved about the room opening drawers and shuffling papers on some pretext, Luis Alfonso commenced his work. But after a few days, covered in dust, and tired of rummaging through the archive — a doorless armoire and a mountain of bundles on a table— he considered talking to Don Ramiro directly.
“No… you won’t be able to do that, my dear sir,” the nearsighted man said in a mocking, high-pitched tone. He was calm and confident. He had received orders from Doña Francisca.
“Why?” asked Romero y Flores, floundering in a sort of impotence that threatened to bury him in the tragedy of his shame, of his humble voice, of…
“I thought I told you. Don Ramiro’s out of town. He’s on an electoral tour. His time has come. He’s the official candidate.”
“I’ll speak with Doña Francisca then.”
“That’s a different matter.”
“I’ll go today.”
“The lady has a political gathering at home. Every afternoon… Perhaps tomorrow. I could…”
“Good, very good.” the young man said optimistically. He then feverishly gathered his papers, some notes, and a copy of Don Ramiro’s account. When he bid farewell to the general assistant, he thought: “Poor fool… He’ll die at work… Those wrinkled shoes, torn elbows, watery eyes, dandruff, and that stench… Oh!”
As he walked down the street, thoughts of his heroic decision faded away as he realized he ought to take precautions. He went in search of Don Guachicola, an old drunkard whose photographic memory had enabled him to record a slew of scandalous anecdotes about the posh half-breeds and bureaucrats he’d spent his life among — he also sought out his friends, chullas from the billiard halls, bars, cafes, and backrooms — to learn what more he could about the virtues and miracles of the Presidential Candidate and his family.
In the middle of a drunken monologue, Don Guachicola, savoring vengeance and the bitterness of defeat, gave the young man a biographical synthesis of Don Ramiro:
“He arrived many years ago from a small village deep in the mountains. He arrived, like so many young men from the countryside, with a burning desire to advance, to become a doctor. He was the blossom of his province! But, either because he couldn’t or didn’t wish to, he never completed his university studies. Instead, he figured out how to brilliantly use his outward appearance to position himself as a most eligible bachelor. He was no Adonis, but being a light-skinned Indian, practically white, enabled him to get by with the help of women. Putting genuine love aside, he tied himself to the dowry of Ms. Francisca Montes y Ayala. They say the lady did it to cover up more than one scandal caused by her fiery temperament. And what did he get out of it? He’d suddenly stepped into the world of the patriots, the masters, the minority ruling class. Marriage is the sweet key of destiny. Thousands have accomplished what he did in the same manner. According to publicity and praise from the ‘big press,’ which was the only kind he read, he used his wife’s money to make charitable donations after establishing himself. He started going to the club. His concubines were many and beautiful. He took exaggerated care of the way he dressed and smelled. Like you, dear chulla. He’s quite a sight to behold in his morning coat, bowler hat, spats and cane. In fact, you should see him at funerals, weddings, and etiquette visits to dignitaries, bishops, generals and diplomats. He became involved in a number of political parties, and his political influence grew as fast as his cynicism. He formed friendships and discovered kinship in the conservative oligarchy. He expressed his support for a certain left-wing group. He declared himself a liberal in the upper bureaucratic spheres, which he was easily admitted into thanks to his marriage to an illustrious surname… As for his talent as an orator, as a philosopher, as a poet. Oh, what talent! Divine! On occasion, newspapers have published, and continue to publish, articles containing excerpts from his letters or passages from his speeches. A friend of mine who knows all about these things always says: ‘His writings are the academic endeavors of a half-breed trying to pass for white. He simply plagiarizes everything from European magazines. Pure Baroque disguise….’ The gentleman’s embezzlements were once the subject of much debate and scandal. What embezzlements! It was a huge deal. However, as soon as they saw he wasn’t just another poncho-clad peasant, the authorities acted with the same fear and respect that a wretched Indian would exhibit before his master: hat in hand, slobbering apology… And here’s the best part, in a show of political gallantry, they called the robbery carelessness, lack of experience… This asshole must have an entire troop of shady associates on his team.”
“I’ve discovered one of them… One…” Romero y Flores remarked to himself.
His friends too, young adventurers like himself, provided the new tax inspector with an account similar to that of old Guachicola — but less toxic, to be sure. Despite a tumult of impulses, he felt no closer to reaching the great role model.
Luis Alfonso felt his courage dwindling, and that his incorruptible judge’s persona was being mocked by the full-length mirrors, damask curtains, silver candelabras, pale porcelain ornaments, and lamps of nervous crystals — decor from his grandiose dreams.
As in tales of witches and ghosts, there suddenly emerged from a door a tall lady (neither skinny nor fat) who concealed the maturity of her half-century old age behind makeup touch-ups and an unnaturally youthful demeanor. Under the spell of the afternoon twilight streaming in through the large windows, the woman’s face acquired the aesthetics of an animal. “Doña Francisca… She has the face of a horse… The horse from the game of chess… I prefer The Nun…” said the young man to himself.
“Mister Tax Inspector?”
“At your service. I was wondering…”
“Good. Take a seat.”
“Thank you very much. Thank you kindly. I must express my regret. He-he-he… I’m sure you’ll understand. Duties are duties… I… My superiors…They…” muttered the chulla, trying in vain to be friendly. He wanted to employ his repertoire of exquisite manners from his aristocratic dreams but they remained dormant. He couldn’t shake off the clinging agony that was making his hands tremble and his legs go numb. On other occasions (very few, of course), he’d been able to easily get along among posh people. But he hadn’t felt naked back then, whereas now he felt himself teetering on the verge of a stupid contradiction. Was it the Presidential Candidate’s wife’s malicious and domineering demeanor? Was it the enticing murmur of perfume and merriment that was trickling in from the next room?
“Our clerk informed me over the phone that you have refused to sign off on my husband’s account. Why? Is it some kind of caprice?” asked Doña Francisca, taking advantage of the tax inspector’s notable disconcertedness.
In response, the young man made a gesture indicating that he was not at fault.
“Then who? Your….”
“Ah! Complete nonsense. And you believed it. It’s better that you think about the future. Your future.”
“She has no idea… I mean to defend her… Defend them… From the parasites…” Luis Alfonso said to himself with heroic pride. With a pride that compelled him to respond:
“Yes. But perhaps you’re unaware that your employee has refused to provide me with receipts for several items. He must be…”
“Those documents no longer exist. They could have compromised us so they had to vanish. They’re simply gone,” Doña Francisca announced with morbid, throat-stabbing cynicism. Romero y Flores furrowed his brow, his mouth dropped open. What was speaking to him was neither a horse-head from the game of chess nor a victim of exploited vulnerabilities. It was a powerful foe, a perfumed demon with stony, cold black eyes, which contrasted sharply with the ladylike delicacy of her pointed fingernails.
“The Tribunal Court of Audit and Finance. Do you know it? It’s the highest authority on the matter.”
“It burned all of that trash some months ago.”
“Without waiting for the legal time limit to expire?” asked the chulla, with an abrupt, instinctual reaction.
“In special cases…”
“When national honor demands it… When politics… When my husband… When a person of great importance, like the President of the Republic, believes it is vital…”
“But what about me?”
“Nothing. You must accept things as they are.”
The new tax inspector, trapped in an absurdity that was mightier than his affectations and special powers, believed that the only way to save himself was to insist:
“Where can I find Don Ramiro?”
“Didn’t our clerk tell you he’s on tour?”
“He mentioned something like that.”
“It’s so hard to get a hold of him. We… We’re merely chicks. He… He’s the mighty eagle.”
“The museum eagle, goddammit,” Luis Alfonso thought, recalling a joke he’d read in an opposition newspaper about the illustrious personage. The memory of that sarcasm partially appeased the chulla’s disconcertedness. He yearned to say something, to use the audacity (violent, predatory, skillful) that had earned him so much renown among the low-status half-breeds, but she continued:
“If you desire a recommendation… If you want… Well… You understand me, right?”
“Not a word,” the young man murmured, despite knowing everything thanks to the henchmen’s gossip and greed.
“Oh! Really? Scruples… We can talk about that later…” concluded Doña Francisca, looking at the little bureaucrat with the same curiosity with which someone observes a miserable worm’s venomous outbursts before stomping on it.
“It’s just that…”
“Sorry, I didn’t get your name…” the lady said, abruptly changing topic.
“Luis Alfonso Romero y Flores,” he said, stressing the R’s in his surname.
“Son of the late Miguel, right?”
“I was very helpful to him during his misfortune.”
“During his misfortune,” the new tax inspector echoed, slipping down the slope of the shame produced by the realization that someone knew the secret of his original sin, of his bloodline. He wouldn’t have minded if the tragicomic misery of the old man, his father, was all she knew about. But….
“We were once friends. Very good friends. Before… That thing… It was unforgivable. There’s no name for it,” remarked the Candidate’s wife, throwing her hands in the air.
“My mother… She’s talking about my mother… About her… Oh!” the chulla thought to himself. His incorruptible judge’s pride and witty adventurer’s sneer had come to a halt; his demeanor changed to one of anguish and supplication.
“Well… It’s not really worth talking about…” murmured Doña Francisca, letting up on her plan to humiliate the young man. It had taken her just a few words, very few. She had known exactly where to strike because latifundistas have a unique defensive intuition — knowing that a cholo’s biggest weakness is being only half-white. Satisfied and compassionate, in a fit of generosity, she continued:
“I understand your sorrow. I see your sadness… But you should consider. You’re a man. Life. You could make good friends. Our offer isn’t bad. The clerk… Our employee… He must have told you something….”
As if dreaming, Romero y Flores shook his head in disbelief. Blurry spots danced before his eyes. He felt wounded, weak, small.
“Come… Let’s go into the living room. The city’s very best are here,” invited the woman with the chess-horse face with feigned courtesy, guiding the young man who moved like an automaton.
The room was filled with tobacco smoke and varying degrees of bright to dim lighting. Guests were bowing deeply to one another in reverence, which included a parade of gentlemen polished by some secret villainy, ladies in silk and jewelry, senior clergy in purple-trimmed cassocks, and officers clad in dress uniforms with swords, as if from an almanac. The confidence that Luis Alfonso felt as he mingled among the city’s “very best,” dissipated as soon as Doña Francisca, acting both sly and benevolent, told him he could enjoy himself as if he were just another one of her guests, and then abandoned him in a corner of the room to fend for himself. At that moment, as if everyone had agreed on a strange game, they openly turned their backs on the intruder. Feeling a desperate urge to be acknowledged, he made his way through the crowd, swallowing profanities along the way. He tried to smile. He tried to speak. As he passed by, the chatter and candid talk coming from the faces of the “very best” came to a halt. “Who is he?” each insinuated with scornful eyes. “What exactly does he want?” “What’s his purpose here?” And not once but thrice he responded mentally, “I’m the tax inspector, and I want to inspect….” Fortunately, that dialogue died of indifference, it was lost among the mirrors, among the curtains, among the furniture, among the servants who passed around whiskey, cupcakes, and bacon rolls. Then someone put a glass in the chulla’s hands, followed by another. His obsession with the idea of himself as a superior figure of justice was fostered by the alcohol. He approached a group of young women chatting and gossiping next to a porcelain vase. He tried to say a few words from his gallant repertoire. It was a futile effort. Once again he was met with the contempt of everyone’s damned backs. Contempt… For him! He then remembered he was Mister Tax Inspector, and, as someone preparing his weapon for battle, he pulled some papers out of his pocket—a breakdown of the Presidential Candidate’s financial records. He made a pointing motion with them and managed to murmur in a voice he himself didn’t recognize:
“I’m the tax inspector.”
Doña Francisca’s guests, with great prudence, drowned out that declaration by raising the tone of their voices, of their joy. In the face of failure, Romero y Flores stiffened in a defiant posture and made a valiant effort to make himself known:
“I’m the tax inspector.”
“Eh?” exclaimed the honorable and distinguished crowd, violently turning their heads in the man’s direction so as to chastise him.
“I’m the tax inspector!” Luis Alfonso cried out helplessly, surrounded by a throng of accusing eyes: “He’s drunk!” “Who is he to yell like that in a room?” “A cholo with no manners!” “What nerve!” “Why don’t they kick him out?” “Inspect? Who, how, why?” “We’re the masters here!” “To doubt us is to doubt God, the country, everything…!” “Someone should give him a tip to make him shut up!”
“I’m the tax inspector!”
Doña Francisca appeared abruptly, with a conciliatory tone. Her chess-horse smile had a lethal and eerie quality to it.
“It’s true,” she announced loudly.
“I forgot to introduce you. This gentleman is the son of Miguel Romero y Flores.”
“Romero y Flores?”
“Poor Miguel. His ruin was the result of his drinking, debts, idleness, and a string of problems with women. His dead body was discovered in some alleyway in the neighborhood of Aguarico. Totally inebriated.”
“A gentleman of adventure, of the conquest, of the encomienda, of nobility, of pride, of the cross, of the sword, of…” the chulla said to himself, impelled by a supplicating want to hide his embarrassing truth: that he was the offspring of a forbidden love, mixed with Indian blood. With a stupid expression on his face, he looked at those who observed him.
“We who were his friends forgave him all his faults—except for the last one.”
“His public affair with a chola. With an Indian maid. Isn’t that so, young man?” asked the woman ironically, like a slap in the face.
“Oh! Oh god! Mom… Momma…” was the voiceless lament raging in the young man’s heart.
“Poor Miguel. According to the men who picked up his corpse, he was found shirtless, with only a vest tied around his chest with a string. They called him Majesty and Poverty.”
“Oh, of course! Him…” the choir gasped, revealing its astonishment. Under memory’s spell, the honorable and distinguished crowd conjured up an image of the proud wretch in all of his former grandeur, complete with his vintage top hat, greenish frock coat, and elegance that was mended at the shoulders, knees, elbows, and shoes. In their mind’s eye, they pictured him walking tall and proud like a soldier, his skin as coarse as a century-old tree, with an upward-pointed mustache, a hooked nose, and a stern brow that accentuated the fiery scorn in his tobacco-colored eyes.
“My grandfather once told me that the nickname ‘Majesty and Poverty’ is traditional.”
“Apparently, a down-and-out Spanish nobleman from colonial times also bore that name. A little man who, despite his ragged clothes and empty stomach, had the regal bearing of a knight in cape and sword, palace liturgy, batiste handkerchief.”
From the choir gathered around the young man, came a flood of cruel remarks:
“A most horrid bug.”
“Like a baroque figure from a church wall.”
“A catafalque among rainy mountains and sunny jungles.”
“Nonetheless, there’s something in him that’s in all of us.”
“In all of us.”
“As for the mother of the distinguished tax inspector, people called her Mama Domitila,” said Doña Francisca, speaking above her friends’ noise, which rose by the minute.
The chulla could no longer bear it. He raised his head to make his escape, to express his disgust and anger at the world. But he remained silent. He had forgotten about his special powers, grace, and dignity. He felt naked, raw. He felt as though the scornful glares from the honorable and distinguished crowd were setting fire to his veins, to his nerves, to his bones. He recoiled, like a scorpion besieged by flames. He longed for poison, so he could take it and end it all. An embarrassed expression that implored them to forgive and to forget crossed his face as he turned to leave.
On the street, Luis Alfonso seemed impervious to the brisk evening’s highland winds and misty drizzle. The contempt from those he most revered had left him feeling dazed, as if from a bad hangover. Torn apart, he shamelessly exhibited his deformed, stinking ancestral ghosts, who had always served as his tutelary guardians. His mother’s shadow came first. Nooo! He’d been unable to dispel her. The other one, despite being impoverished, was at least of noble blood. It’s just that… He recalled with bitterness how the cynicism of the old chess-horse face had rendered his favorite trick impossible. She had not allowed him, they had not allowed him, as was his custom, to hide the resentfulness, gloom, sentimentality, fatalism, quietness, humility of his mother — an Indian maid — behind the mask of the arrogance, adventurousness, intelligence, pomposity, fanaticism and brutality of his father — a disgraced gentleman. “Why was I such a coward? Why didn’t I come up with some lie, some joke? Why in the hell did they open my chest to see what’s inside me? Why did I get tongue tied? Why? Why did my mind go blank? Why did my legs…? Why?” the young man asked, reproaching himself with hatred.
“Because of your mother!” was Majesty and Poverty’s response. “She’s the cause of your incessant sticky shame… Of the stupid look on your face… Of the way your lips tremble when people like me delve into your past… Of your farm worker’s hands… Of your high cheekbones… Of your green ass… A gentleman you’ll never be….”
“Because in them you saw the fury and evil heart of taita Miguel,” rang the muffled wail of Mama Domitila. “Of taita Miguel when he made me weep like a worthless dog… Because you too, my tender bird, my chased little mouse, despise me… Because you too, my beautiful baby boy, have some white devil in you….”
These distinct, persistent voices and impulses, with their irreconcilable, paradoxical dialogue, had been with him ever since he was a young boy. They drove him deep into the desperation and loneliness that comes with being an outcast from two nonconforming races, from an unmarried home, from a people who revere what they hate and are ashamed of what they love. He vowed to take revenge on them. He would destroy, by any means necessary, the old chess-horse face, the Presidential Candidate, and the sneering, all-powerful choir of the “very best” of the city. Without taking his chances of winning into account, he decided to wage a dangerous war. He would denounce their mistakes, swindles, and frauds to the four winds. He was armed with their falsified transfers, receipts he’d uncovered. But… where should he go? To whom? How should he get started? He took a look around him. A skinny, barefoot boy was banging on a studded, latched door with his small hands. With the same bravery with which he had once given a deserved beating to a classmate—a stuck up cockroach from a newly-rich mestizo family—who had dared to call him “son-of-a-bitch, güiñachisca,” the young man said to himself, “no matter who or where,” while deftly avoiding his ancestral ghosts’ attempts at intervention. It’s curious that, since then (or before that even), being called güiñachisca hurt and humiliated him more than being called son-of-a-bitch.
And without giving any consideration to what his colleagues often spoke about at the office (greed, bribes, complicity), Romero y Flores foolishly believed that he could put an end to the scoundrels and crooks. For just a fleeting moment, an anxious restlessness penetrated his anger and threatened to weaken it. But… his special powers… he exhaled menacingly, like a snarling dog. He lifted his head. As he braved the rain and wind under that dark sky, he murmured in a low voice, thinking of Rosario:
“I’ll fight them, goddammit. They’ll pay for what they did to me.”
Long before she met the chulla Romero y Flores, Rosario Santacruz, the orphan of a retired captain who was shot to death in a dispute amongst drunken soldiers, believed that the gracefulness and allure of her body would save and secure her future. Similarly, she believed that her supple legs (slender ankles, soft knees, delectable thighs), rebellious breasts, sensuous lips, firm stomach, and curly black locks (a rag-rolls-and-curling-irons miracle), would guarantee her a good marriage. This belief, which brought her inexplicable blush-inducing delight at times and agony at others, left her feeling dazed and confused, and as a result, the biggest liar and sweet-talker had been able to sweep her off her feet with his proposals. It was a small merchant by the name of Reinaldo Monteverde who won her over with promises of fortune and a lavish wedding ceremony: parchment paper invitations, a beautiful church, champagne toasts, a formal wedding party, photos in the newspapers, a honeymoon by the sea. However, it should be mentioned that he never delivered on such marvels.
More coming soon…