The Crystal Frontier | Chapter 7 of 15

Author: Carlos Fuentes | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 1185 Views | Add a Review

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SPOILS

For Sealtiel Alatriste

Dionisio “Baco” Rangel became famous when he was just a kid, when competing on the radio program Junior Professors he unhesitatingly gave out his recipe for Puebla-style marrow tarts.

A discovery: gastronomic knowledge can be a source not only of fortune but of magnificent banquets, transforming the need to survive into the luxury of living. This fact defined Dionisio’s career, but it gave him no higher goal.

His ascent from mere appetite to culinary art and from there to a well-paid profession was attributable to his love of Mexican cuisine and disdain for cuisines of lower status, like that of the United States of America. Before he was twenty, Dionisio had taken as an article of faith that there were only five great cuisines in the world: Chinese, French, Italian, Spanish, and Mexican. Other nationalities had dishes of the first quality—Brazilian feijoada, Peruvian chicken soup with chiles, Argentine beef were excellent, as were North African couscous and Japanese teriyaki—but only Mexican cuisine was a universe unto itself. From Sinaloa’s chilorio, with its little cubes of pork well seasoned with oregano, sesame, garlic, and fat chiles, to Oaxaca’s chicken with mountain herbs and avocado leaves, the uchepo tamales of Michoacán, Colima’s sea bass with prawns and parsley, San Luis Potosí’s meatloaf stuffed with cheese, and that supreme delicacy which is Oaxaca’s yellow mole—two so-called wide chiles, two guajillo chiles, one red tomato, 250 grams of green jitomatillos, two tablespoons of coriander, two leaves of hierbasanta, two peppercorns—Mexican cuisine was for Dionisio a constellation apart that moved in the celestial vaults of the palate with its own trajectories, its own planets, satellites, comets, meteors. Like space itself, it was infinite.

Called upon, also in short order, to write for Mexican and foreign newspapers, to give courses and lectures, to appear on television and to publish cookbooks, Dionisio “Baco” Rangel, at the age of fifty-one, was a culinary authority, celebrated and well-paid, nowhere more so than in the country he most disdained for the poverty of its cuisine. Having appeared all over the United States of America (especially after the success of Like Water for Chocolate), Dionisio decided this was the cross he would have to bear in life: to preach fine cooking in a country incapable of understanding or practicing it. Excellent restaurants could of course be found in the big cities—New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and New Orleans (whose tradition would have been inexplicable without the lengthy French presence there). But Dionisio challenged the lowliest cooks in Puebla or Oaxaca to approach without a sense of horror the gastronomic deserts of Kansas, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Indiana, or the Dakotas where they would seek in vain for espazote, ajillo chile, huitlacoche, or agua de jamaica …

For the record, Dionisio said he wasn’t anti-Yankee in this matter or in any other, even though every child born in Mexico knew that in the nineteenth century the gringos had stripped us of half our territory—California, Utah, Nevada, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. The generosity of Mexico, Dionisio would habitually say, shows in its not holding a grudge for that terrible despoiling, although the memory lingered on, while the gringos didn’t even remember that war, much less know its unfairness. Dionisio spoke of “the United States of Amnesia.”

From time to time he thought humorously about the historical irony that caused Mexico to lose all that territory in 1848 through abandonment, indifference, and a sparse population. Now (the elegant, well-dressed, distinguished silver-haired critic smiled roguishly), we were on the way to recovering it, thanks to what could be termed Mexico’s chromosomal imperialism. Millions of Mexicans worked in the United States, and thirty million people in the United States spoke Spanish. But at the same time, how many Mexicans spoke decent English? Dionisio knew of only two, Jorge Castañeda and Carlos Fuentes, for which reason both seemed suspicious to him. For the same reason, the exclamation of the Spanish bullfighter Cagancho seemed admirable to him: “Speak English? God help me!” Since the gringos had screwed Mexico in 1848 with their “manifest destiny” so now Mexico would give them a dose of their own medicine, reconquering them with the most Mexican of weapons, linguistic, racial, and culinary.

And Rangel himself, how did he communicate with his English-speaking university audiences? In an accent he learned from the actor Gilberto Roland, born Luis Alonso in Coahuila, and with a profusion of literal translations that delighted his listeners:

“Let’s see if like you snore you sleep.”

“Beggars can’t carry big sticks.”

“You don’t have a mom or a dad or even a little dog to bark at you.”

All this just so you’ll understand with what conflicted feelings Dionisio “Baco” Rangel carried out, twice a year, the tours that took him from one U.S. university to another, where the horror of sitting down to dinner at five in the afternoon was nothing compared with the terror he felt when he realized what, at an hour when Mexicans were barely finishing their midday meal, was being served at the academic tables. Generally, the banquet would begin with a salad of fainting lettuce crowned with raspberry jam; that touch, he’d been told several times in Missouri, Ohio, and Massachusetts, was very sophisticated, very gourmet. The well-known rubber chicken followed, uncuttable and unchewable, served with tough string beans and mashed potatoes redolent of the envelope they had just recently abandoned. Dessert was a fake strawberry shortcake, more a strawberry bath sponge. Finally, watered-down coffee through which you could see the bottom of the cup and admire the geological circles deposited there by ten thousand servings of poison. The best thing, Dionisio told himself, was a furtive sip of the iced tea served at all hours and on any occasion; it was insipid, but at least the lemon slices were tasty. Rangel sucked them avidly so he wouldn’t come down with a cold.

Was it because they were cheap? Was it because they lacked imagination? Dionisio Rangel decided to become a Sherlock Holmes and investigate what passed for “cuisine” in the United States by secretly carrying out an informal survey of hospitals, mental asylums, and prisons. What did he discover was served in all those places? Salad with raspberry jam, rubbery chicken, spongy cake, and translucent coffee. It was, he concluded, a matter of generalized institutional food, exceptions to which would probably be surprising, if not memorable. Professors, criminals, the insane, and the sick set the tone for U.S. menus—or was it perhaps that the universities, madhouses, jails, and hospitals were all supplied by the same caterer?

Dionisio smiled as he shaved after his morning bath—his best ideas always came to him then. Rubbing Barbasol onto his cheeks, he imagined a historical explanation. National cuisines are great only when they arise from the people. In Mexico, Italy, France, or Spain, you need have no fear when you walk into the first roadside restaurant, the humblest bistro, the busiest tavola calda, because you’re certain of finding something good to eat there. It’s not the rich, Rangel would say to anyone who cared to listen, who dictate culinary taste from above; it’s the people, the worker, the peasant, the artisan, the truck driver who, from below, invent and consecrate the dishes that make up the great cuisines. And they do it out of intimate respect for what they put in their mouths.

Patience, time, Dionisio would explain in his classes, standing in front of an uncomprehending herd of young people with chewing gum in their mouths and baseball caps on their heads. You need time and patience to prepare a lapin faisandé in France, need to let the rabbit spoil to the point when it attains its tastiest, most savory tartness (ugh!); you need love and patience to prepare a huitlacoche soufflé in Mexico, using the black, cancerous corn fungus that in other, less sophisticated latitudes is fed to the hogs (yuck!).

By the same token, you can’t have time or patience when you’re trying to fry a couple of eggs in a covered wagon and you’re attacked by redskins and must pray for the cavalry to arrive and save you (whoopee!). Dionisio would be speaking to dozens of Beavis and Butt-head wanna-bes, the offspring of Wayne’s World, legions of young people convinced that being an idiot is the best way to pass through the world recognized by no one (in some cases) or everyone (in others). Masters always of an anarchic liberty and a stupid natural wisdom redeemed by an imbecility devoid of pretensions or complications. Knowing consisted in not knowing. The depressing lesson of the movie Forrest Gump. To be always available for whatever chance may bring …

How could the successors of Forrest Gump understand that, when a single Mexican city, Puebla, can boast of more than eight hundred dessert recipes, it is because of generations and generations of nuns, grandmothers, nannies, and old maids, the work of patience, tradition, love, and wisdom? How, when their supreme refinement consisted in thinking that life is like a box of chocolates, a varied pre-fabrication, a fatal Protestant destiny disguised as free will? Beavis and Butt-head, that pair of half-wits, would have finished off the nuns of Puebla by pelting them with stale cake, the grandmothers they would have locked in closets to die of hunger and thirst, and of course they would have raped the nannies. And finally, a favor of the highest order for the leftover young ladies.

Baco’s students stared at him as if he were insane and sometimes, to show him the error of his ways and with the air of people protecting a lunatic or bringing relief to the needy, would invite him to a McDonald’s after class. How were they going to understand that a Mexican peasant eats well even if he eats little? Abundance, that’s what his gringo students were celebrating, showing off in front of this weird Mexican lecturer, their cheeks swollen with mushy hamburgers, their stomachs stuffed with wagon-wheel pizzas, their hands clutching sandwiches piled as high as the ones Dagwood made in his comic strip, leaning as dangerously as the Tower of Pisa. (There’s even an imperialism in comic strips. Latin America gets U.S. comics but they never publish ours. Mafalda, Patoruzú, the Superwise Ones, and the Burrón family never travel north. Our minimal revenge is to give Spanish names to the gringo funnies. Jiggs and Maggie become Pancho and Ramona, Mutt and Jeff metamorphose into Benitín and Eneas, Goofy is Tribilín, Minnie Mouse becomes Ratoncita Mimí, Donald Duck is Pato Pascual, and Dagwood and Blondie are Lorenzo and Pepita. Soon, however, we won’t even have that freedom, and Joe Palooka will always be Joe Palooka, not our twisted-around Pancho Tronera.)

Abundance. The society of abundance. Dionisio Rangel wants to be very frank and to admit to you that he’s neither an ascetic nor a moralist. How could a sybarite be an ascetic when he so sensually enjoys a clemole in radish sauce? But his culinary peak, exquisite as it is, has a coarse, possessive side about which the poor food critic doesn’t feel guilty, since he is only—he begs you to understand—a passive victim of U.S. consumer society.

He insists it isn’t his fault. How can you escape, even if you spend only two months of the year in the United States, when wherever you happen to be—a hotel, motel, apartment, faculty club, studio, or, in extreme cases, trailer—fills up in the twinkling of an eye with electronic mail, coupons, every conceivable kind of offer, insignificant prizes intended to assure you that you’ve won a Caribbean cruise, unwanted subscriptions, mountains of paper, newspapers, specialized magazines, catalogs from L. L. Bean, Sears, Neiman Marcus?

As a response to that avalanche of papers, multiplied a thousandfold by E-mail—requests for donations, false temptations—Dionisio decided to abandon his role as passive recipient and assume that of active transmitter. Instead of being the victim of an avalanche, he proposed to buy the mountain. Why not acquire everything the television advertisements offered—diet milkshakes, file systems, limited-edition CDs with the greatest songs of Pat Boone and Rosemary Clooney, illustrated histories of World War II, complicated devices for toning and developing the muscles, plates commemorating the death of Elvis Presley or the wedding of Charles and Diana, a cup commemorating the bicentennial of American independence, fake Wedgwood tea sets, frequent-flyer offerings from every airline, trinkets left over from Lincoln’s and Washington’s birthdays, the tawdry costume jewelry purveyed by the Home Shopping Channel, exercise videos with Cathy Lee Crosby, all the credit cards that ever were … all of it, he decided, was irresistible, was for him, was available, even the magic detergents that cleaned anything, even an emblematic stain of mole poblano.

Secretly, he knew the reasons for this new acquisitive voraciousness. One was a firm belief that if, expansively, generously, he accepted what the United States offered him—weight-loss programs, detergents, songs of the fifties—it would ultimately accept what he was offering: the patience and taste to concoct a good escabeche victorioso. The other was a plan to get even for all the garbagey prizes he’d been accumulating—again, passively—by going on television and competing on quiz shows. His culinary knowledge was infinite, so he could easily win and not only in the gastronomic category.

Cuisine and sex are two indispensable pleasures, the former more than the latter. After all, you can eat without love, but you can’t love without eating. And if you understand the culinary palate you know everything: what went into a kiss or a crab chilpachole involved historical, scientific, and even political wisdom. Where were cocktails born? In Campeche, among English sailors who mixed their drinks with a local condiment called “cock’s tail.” Who consecrated chocolate as an acceptable beverage in society? Louis XIV at Versailles, after the Aztec drink had been considered a bitter poison for two centuries. Why in old Russia was the potato prohibited by the Orthodox Church? Because it wasn’t mentioned in the Bible and therefore had to be a creation of the devil. In one sense the Orthodox clergy were right: the potato is the source of that diabolical liquor vodka.

The truth is, Rangel entered these shows more to become known among larger audiences than to win the washing machines, vacuum cleaners, and—mirabile visu!—trips to Acapulco with which his successes were rewarded.

Besides, he had to pass the time.

A silver-haired old fox, an interesting man, with the looks of a mature movie star, Dionisio “Baco” Rangel was, at the age of fifty-one, something of a copy of that cinematic model personified by the late Arturo de Córdova, in whose films marble stairways and plastic flamingoes filled the background of neurotic love scenes featuring innocent fifteen-year-old girls and vengeful forty-year-old mothers, all of them reduced to their proper size by the autumnal star’s memorable and lapidary phrase: “It doesn’t have the slightest importance.” It should be pointed out that Dionisio, with greater self-generosity, would say to himself as he shaved every morning (Barbasol) that he had no reason to envy Vittorio De Sica, who moved beyond the movies of Fascist Italy, with their white telephones and satin sheets, to become the supreme neorealist director of shoeshine boys, stolen bicycles, and old men with only dogs for company. But still, how handsome, how elegant he was, how surrounded by Ginas, Sophias, and Claudias! It was to that sum of experience and that smoothness of appearance that our compatriot Dionisio “Baco” Rangel aspired as he stored all his American products in a suburban warehouse outside the border city of San Diego, California.

The problem was that girls no longer flocked to our autumnal star. The problem was that his style clashed badly with theirs. The problem was that as he stared at himself in the mirror (Barbasol, no Brilliantine, no brilliant ideas) he had to accept that after a Certain Age a star must be circumspect, elegant, calm—all so as not to succumb to the maximum absurdity of the aged Don Juan, Fernando Rey, in Buñuel’s Viridiana, who possesses virgins only if he dopes them up first and then plays them Handel’s Messiah.

“Unhandel me, sire.”

Dionisio had therefore to spend many solitary hours, on his lecture tours and in television studios, wasting his melancholy on futile reflections. California was his inevitable zone of operations, and there he spent a season passing time in Los Angeles observing the flow of cars through that headless city’s freeway system, imagining it as the modern equivalent of a medieval joust, each driver a flawless knight and each car an armor-covered charger. But his concentrated observation aroused suspicion, and the police arrested him for loitering near the highways: Was he a terrorist?

American oddities began to command his attention. He was pleased to discover that beneath the commonplaces about a uniform, robotic society devoid of culinary personality (article of faith), there roiled a multiform, eccentric world, quasi-medieval in its corrosive ferment against an order once imposed by Rome and its Church and now by Washington and its Capitol. How would the country put itself in order when it was full of religious lunatics who believed beyond doubt that faith, not surgery, would take care of a tumor in the lungs? How, when the country was full of people who dared not exchange glances in the street lest the stranger turn out to be an escaped paranoid authorized to kill anyone who didn’t totally agree with his ideas, or a murderer released from an overcrowded mental hospital or jail, or a vengeful homosexual armed with HIV-laden syringes, a neo-Nazi skinhead ready to slit the throat of a dark-skinned person, a libertarian militiaman prepared to finish off the government by blowing up federal buildings, a country where teenage gangs were better armed than the police, exercising their constitutional right to carry rocket launchers and blow off the head of a neighbor’s child?

Sliding along the streets of America, Dionisio happily gave to that single country the name of an entire continent, gladly sacrificing in favor of a name with lineage, position, history (like Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Nicaragua …) that name without a name, the ghostlike “United States of America,” which, his friend the historian Daniel Cosío Villegas said, was a moniker like “The Neighborhood Drunkard.” Or, as Dionisio himself thought, like a mere descriptor, like “Third Floor on the Right.”

A good Mexican, Dionisio conceded all the power in the world to the gringos except that of an aristocratic culture: Mexico had one, paying the price, it was true, with abysmal, perhaps insurmountable inequality and injustice. Mexico also had conventions, manners, tastes, subtleties that confirmed her aristocratic culture: an island of tradition increasingly whipped and sometimes flooded, though, by storms of vulgarity and styles of commercialization that were worse, because grosser, cheaper, more disgusting, than those of North Americans. In Mexico even a thief was courteous, even an illiterate was cultured, even a child knew how to say hello, even a maid knew how to walk gracefully, even a politician knew how to behave like a lady, even a lady knew how to behave like a politician, even the cripples were acrobats, and even the revolutionaries had the good taste to believe in the Virgin of Guadalupe.

None of that consoled him in his ever longer moments of middle-aged tedium, when classes were over, when the lectures had come to an end, the girls had left, and he had to return to the hotel, the motel …

It was perhaps these curious shelters that led Dionisio “Baco” Rangel to his latest way of amusing himself in California. He spent weeks sitting outside the places that most tested his patience and good taste—McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, and, abomination of abominations, Taco Bell—so he could count the fat people who came to and left from those cathedrals of bad eating. He was armed with statistics. Forty million persons in the United States were obese, more than in any other country in the world. Fat—seriously fat—people: pink masses, souls lost under rolls and rolls of flesh, to the point of rendering characteristics like eyes, noses, mouths, even their sexes ephemeral. Dionisio watched a 350-pound woman pass by and wondered where her vein of pleasure might be. How, among the multiple slabs along her thighs and buttocks, would you get to the sanctum sanctorum of her libido? Would her male counterpart dare ask, Honey, could you just fart so I can get my bearings here? Dionisio laughed to himself at his vulgarity, celebrated and forgiven, because every Hispanic aristocrat owes something to the scatology of that great poet Don Francisco de Quevedo y Villegas. Quevedo connects our spirit and our excrement: we will be dust, but dust in love. He justifies our enjoyment of the huge dose of profanity that existence offers us, and our compiling, as Quevedo did in the seventeenth century and no one until Kundera did in the twentieth, praises of the asshole’s grace and disgrace.

The parade Dionisio observed owed more to Fernando Botero and his adipose crews of immense courtesans than to Rubens, who never imagined obese priests, swollen children, generals about to burst … Forty million fat gringos? Was it just the effect of bad food? Why did this happen in the United States and not in Spain, Mexico, or Italy, despite the pork sausages, tamales, and tagliarini that fleshed out those cuisines? In each potbelly that went by Dionisio suspected the presence of millions of paper and cellophane bags zealously safeguarding, in the void that precedes the flood, hundreds of millions of french fries, tons of popcorn, sugar cakes frosted with nuts and chocolate, audible cereals, mountains of tricolored ice cream crowned with peanuts and hot caramel sauce, hamburgers of toughened dog meat, thin as shoe soles, served between tombstones of greasy, insipid, inflated bread, the national American host, smeared with ketchup (This is my blood) and loaded with calories (This is my body) … Spongy buttocks, hands moist and transparent as gelatin, pink skin holding in the mass of pus, blood, and scales … He watched them pass.

And nevertheless, as Dionisio “Baco” Rangel observed the massive parade of fat women, he began to feel, perversely, inexplicably, a sexual itch. This was like his experience when he had his first erection at thirteen—something sweet, unexpected, and alarming. No, not the first time he masturbated, something he did rationally, as an act of will, but the first flowering of his sex, shocking, unthinkable before it actually happened … The first semen spilled by the young man, eternally, at that moment, the first man, Adam, a man adrift in semen.

The intuition profoundly disturbed the solitary, itinerant gourmet. True, in Mexico there was no dearth of distinguished ladies of fifty and even forty willing to accompany him to eat at Bellinghausen, to have dinner at the Estoril, to attend one of the concerts at the Historic Center festival organized by Francesca Saldívar, or even to hear lectures by his two old colleagues from the Junior Professors radio show, José Emilio Pacheco and Carlos Monsiváis. True, some of those ladies were also happy to sleep with him from time to time, but it was too late in the day to learn their little habits or instruct them in his. And none of them had any way of knowing that nothing excited him so much as a woman’s hand on the back of his neck, just as he had no way of knowing which of them liked to have their nipples nibbled and which didn’t (ouch! that hurts!). The death of his friend Marcelo Chiriboga, a specialist in fat women, deprived him of the pleasure of comparing notes with that wise, ignored, and sensual Ecuadorian novelist, who now, at the right hand of God, would be reciting the well-known prayer that came from the ancient Inca capital conquered by Sebastián de Benalcázar: “While on earth, Quito, and when in heaven, a tiny hole to see Quito.” At this point, all Dionisio wanted was a tiny hole to see the tiny hole of some chubby woman.

Thus did the parade of fat women have its singular, entirely novel effect on Dionisio. He began by imagining himself in the arms of one of these immense women, lost in a leafiness like that of a forest of fleshy ferns, searching for secret jewels, diamond-hard points, hidden velvet, mother-of-pearl smoothness, invisible moistures of The Fat Woman. But Dionisio, being Dionisio (a discreet, elegant, recognized Mexican gentleman), did not dare to act simply on the impulse of his imagination and his body, to approach the obese object of his desire and thereby leave himself open to rejection or even—with luck—acceptance. Rejection, no matter how brutal, would be less painful than her consent to an afternoon of love: having never made love to a fat woman, he didn’t know which end to work from, what he should say, what he shouldn’t say, what the erotic protocol was when dealing with the very obese.

For instance, how could he offer them something to eat without, perhaps, offending them? What love talk would a fat woman expect that wouldn’t diminish or mock her? Come here, my little honey, what cute little eyes you have? “Little” would be offensive, but your great big eyes, your huge tits—augmentatives were equally verboten. Afraid he’d lose his unaffected style and, with it, his effectiveness, Dionisio resigned himself to not making a pass at any of the fat women leaving the Kentucky Fried Chicken, but the very abundance of those women whom he desired for the first time made him think—by way of obvious association—about food, about compensating for the erotic impossibility with culinary possibility, about eating what he couldn’t screw.

He was in a commercial neighborhood north of San Diego, perusing the Yellow Pages in search of a restaurant that wasn’t too vile. An O Sole Mio guaranteed him week-old pasta camouflaged by a Vesuvius tomato sauce. A Chez Montmartre promised horrible food and haughty waiters. A Viva Villa! would condemn him to detestable Tex-Mex with a moustache. He chose an American Grill, which would at least make excellent Bloody Marys and which, from outside, looked clean, even shiny, in its aggressive display of chrome tables, leather seats, a nickel-plated bar, and mirrors—a quicksilver labyrinth, in fact, designed so a diner could see his reflection without looking away from his dinner partner. Or could look at himself the whole time to compensate for the tedium of the food.

He sat down, and a handsome blond young man, dressed like a waiter from the 1890s, offered him a menu. Dionisio had chosen a secluded corner with a view of a skating rink, but shortly two cross bald men bent with age though still energetic, wearing seersucker caps, white cardigan sweaters, and blue pants, took the table next to his. They sat down noisily, shuffling their Nikes.

“Let’s see. To start off…” Dionisio read over the menu.

“Show me the proof,” said one of the bristling old men.

“I don’t have to. You know it isn’t true,” said his companion.

“A shrimp cocktail.”

“You didn’t make a dime on that deal.”

“I don’t know why I go on arguing with you, George.”

“No sauce. Just some lemon.”

“I told you you’d lose your shirt.”

“I told you, I told you, I’ll tell you—don’t you know any other songs?”

“What is the soup of the day?”

“You don’t know a thing.”

“I could see it coming a long way off, Nathan. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

“Vichyssoise.”

“I’m telling you, you don’t know anything.”

“I don’t know anything? Do you know that half the merchant ships in World War Two were lost?”

“Prove it. You just made that up.”

“A steak, but right away.”

“Wanna bet?”

“Sure. I always win when I bet against you. You’re ignorant, George.”

“Medium.”

“Do you know what gravity is?”

“No, and neither do you.”

“It’s a magnetic force.”

“No, skip the green stuff. Just the steak.”

“Let’s see now. Is there gravity right at the edge of the ocean?”

“No, it’s zero there.”

“Whoa! That’s real learning. No one’s going to pull a fast one on you.”

“Put up or shut up.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll take the bet.”

“No, son, I don’t like baked potatoes, with or without sour cream.”

“We still have to charge you for it.”

“Charge me, but don’t put it on the same plate with the steak.”

“Look, they’re going to fire me if I don’t. It’s the rule.”

“Okay, okay, put it on the same plate.”

“They were going to charge you for it anyway. The steak costs twenty-two-ninety with or without potato.”

“Fine.”

“George, you know a little about a lot, but you don’t know anything important.”

“I know a bad deal when I see one, a deal that’ll end in failure, Nathan. You can’t deny I know that.”

“Well, I don’t know anything, but I’m an educated man.”

“Facts, Nathan, facts.”

“Are you listening to me?”

“With the patience of a saint.”

“I don’t know why we keep talking to each other.”

“A green salad.”

“After everything else?”

“Yes, my boy, salad comes at the end.”

“Are you a foreigner?”

“Yes, I’m a really strange foreigner with really strange quirks—like having salad after everything else.”

“In America, we eat it first. That’s the normal way.”

“Are you listening to me, George?”

“Give me facts, Nathan.”

“Do you know that the annual earnings of the publishing industry in America are the same as the earnings of the hot dog industry? Did you know that?”

“Where did you get that? Are you trying to insult me?”

“Since when have you become a book publisher?”

“I’m not. I make hot dogs, as you know perfectly well, Nathan. Are you listening to me?”

“And lemon meringue pie. That’s all.”

“Wanna bet?”

“Are you listening to me?”

“Give me proof.”

“You don’t know anything.”

“I don’t know why we’re still eating together.”

“Bet.”

“I’ll make a bet. Is there gravity on the moon?”

“Facts, facts.”

“I told you that deal was headed for failure. No doubt about it. You’re broke, George.”

The one named George gave out a hoarse, tumultuous sob that didn’t seem possible coming from that impassive face.

There is no fascination that doesn’t also contain its pinch of repulsion. We scold ourselves when we allow ourselves to be seduced by the eye of Medusa, but in the case of this pair of dried-out, bald, long-nosed, arthritic, argumentative old codgers armed with unlit phallic cigars—No smoking, please—repulsion overcame fascination. Dionisio impatiently began to play with a bottle of sauce, rubbing it more and more nervously as the endless debate between George and Nathan went on and on, like insomnia, utterly engrossing for the two old men, unbearable for Dionisio. To save himself from them, the Mexican gastronome began to think about women as he rubbed the bottle, and as he rubbed it, he noticed what it was: Mexican sauce, jalapeño chile sauce. Suddenly, magically, something was unleashed from within, a volcano bursting the ancient crust over its crater and vomiting lava the more the man named after Bacchus rubbed it.

Except that it wasn’t chile sauce that came out of the bottle but a man, diminutive but recognizable by his charro suit, his mariachi hat, and his Zapata-style moustache.

Patrón,” he said, revealing his hairy head, “you’ve saved me from a yearlong imprisonment. No gringo would open me up. Thank you! Your wish is my command!” concluded the tiny charro, caressing the pistol he was carrying on his hip.

For a moment, Dionisio “Baco” Rangel remembered the joke about the shipwrecked man who’s spent ten years on a desert island and one day sets free the genie in a bottle. When the genie asks him what he wants, the man asks for a really great mama. And what he gets is Mother Teresa.

Dionisio decided to be frank with the little charro from the bottle, who looked just like a character in Abel Quezada’s cartoons.

“A woman. No—several women.”

“How many?” asked the little charro, ready, it seemed, to populate a harem if necessary.

“No,” explained Dionisio. “One for each course I ordered.”

“Served with each course, master, or instead of each?”

“That I leave to you,” said Dionisio “Baco” Rangel, the universal Mexican who is, was, and shall be our protagonist. He said it indifferently, accustomed as always to the unusual. “Like the dish being served, with the dish being served…”

The little charro made a magician’s wave, shot into the air, and disappeared. In his place, there appeared, simultaneously, the waiter and a thin woman with dark, lank hair and bangs, starved-looking, bony as Popeye’s girlfriend or Modigliani’s models, the total opposite of the fatties Dionisio had so perversely dreamed of. She was armed with a Diet Coke, which she drank by the teaspoonful as she gazed at Dionisio with eyes at once bored, ironic, and tired. The same eyes, with infinite weariness, explored the American Grill as she wondered out loud, in a drawl as long as the Mississippi, what she was doing there and whom she was with. He said he’d asked the genie in the bottle for a woman. He didn’t manage to surprise her. Suppressing a yawn, the anorexic gringa answered that she’d asked for the same thing. There’s no luck worse than sharing luck with someone else. She’d asked for a man—she smiled with immense fatigue, infinite hunger—leaving everything to chance because every choice she’d made in the past was a poor one. She’d let someone else choose for her. She was available, completely available.

“I’m a terrible lover,” she said, almost with pride. “I’m just warning you. But I never take any blame. The man is always the one to blame.”

“That’s true,” said Dionisio. “There are no frigid women. There are only impotent men.”

“Or enthusiasts,” ruminated the skinny woman. “I can’t stand enthusiastic lovemaking. It takes all the sincerity out of it. But I can’t stand sincerity either. I can only put up with men who lie to me. Lies are the only mystery in love.”

She yawned and said they should postpone their sexual encounter.

“Why?”

“Because the only important thing about sex for me is being able to erase all trace of my sexual partner. All this is very tiring.”

Dionisio reached his hand out to touch the skinny woman’s. She pulled hers back with repugnance and laughed a cabaret laugh.

“How do you act in private, when no one’s watching?” asked the Mexican. She showed her teeth, drank a teaspoon of Diet Coke, and disappeared.

The shrimp cocktail also disappeared. For an instant, Dionisio wondered if he’d eaten it while he’d chatted with the anorexic New Yorker. (She had to be from New York; it was too pat, vulgar, predictable for her to be from California. At least boredom and fatigue in New York have literary foundations and don’t result from the climate.) Or, thinking he was eating a shrimp cocktail, had he eaten the gringa who had so carefully avoided looking him in the eye? (Was she trying to avoid being discovered or even guessed at?) He couldn’t bear the curiosity of knowing if he’d eaten with her or eaten her or if everything might end up—he trembled with pleasure—in a mutual culinary sacrifice …

He heard the charro’s shot, the waiter placed the vichyssoise on the table, and opposite him, eating the same thing, appeared a woman, fortyish, but obviously and avidly enamored of her childhood, with a Laura Ashley dress and a red chignon crowning her Shirley Temple curls. These odd accessories could not distract Dionisio from the repertoire of grimaces accompanying the words and noisy soup slurping of this old Shirley counterfeit, who between slurps and grimaces managed to express only excitement and shock: how exciting to be sitting there eating with him, how shocking to know a man so romantic, so sophisticated, so, so, so … foreign. Only foreigners excited her—it seemed unbelievable to her that a foreigner would notice her, she who lived only on dreams, dreaming about impossible, shocking, exciting romances, all her life dreaming of being in the arms of Ronald Colman, Clark Gable, Rudolf Valentino …

“Do you ever dream about Mel Gibson?”

“Who?”

“Tom Cruise?

“Who’s he?”

No, she had no complaints about life, she went on, making her faces, rolling her eyes, shaking her curls like a luxury floor mop, raising her eyebrows to her topknot, nodding her head like a porcelain doll—and also hissing like a snake, clucking like a hen, howling like a she-wolf before confessing that when she went to bed she sang lullabies and recited Mother Goose, though through her mind (everything was shocking, exciting, unheard of) passed horrible catastrophes, air and sea disasters, highway mayhem, terrorist acts, mutilated bodies, so the lullabies and pretty verses were to exorcise the horrors—did he, an obviously foreign, exciting, sophisticated, wonderful, wonderful, wonderful gentleman understand?

As she spoke the word wonderful, this Alice in Blunder-land, blond and pink, faded into a haze. The soup, too, had disappeared. Dionisio gazed at the empty bowl, disconsolate. Again the charro’s shot rang out, the waiter served the steak, and an extremely beautiful and elegant woman appeared, in a black tailored suit, with pearls at her neck and bracelets on her wrists, perfectly coiffed and made-up and showing a considerable amount of cleavage. She stared at him in silence.

Dionisio cut his meat without saying a word and raised a bloody morsel (he’d requested medium) to his mouth. At that precise instant she began to speak. But not to him. She spoke into a cellular telephone which she held in one hand while she touched the divide between her breasts with the gesture of a woman perfuming that crevice of pleasure before going out to dinner.

“I’m making an exception and eating sitting down, you understand? I never have time to sit down; I eat standing up. This seems abnormal to me.”

“But what’s so strange—” interrupted Dionisio, before realizing that the woman was talking not to him but to her telephone.

“Miss? You think I miss you?”

“No, I never said—” Dionisio decided to make a mistake. Damnation.

“Listen,” said the beautiful woman in the black tailored suit showing a considerable amount of cleavage, her breasts barely hidden by the (appropriately) double-breasted jacket. “I get my faxes at one number. I don’t have a name or address. I don’t need secretaries. My computer is with me wherever I am. I have no place. No, I don’t have time either. I’m proving it to you, stupid. What does it matter to me that in Holland it’s midnight if it’s three p.m. in California and we’re here working…?”

“On a snatch, I mean, a snack.” Dionisio corrected himself but the beauty ignored him, just barely touching herself behind an ear, again as if she were putting on perfume, as if her fingers were a bottle of Chanel.

“Just think, I don’t even need a doctor anymore. You know my bracelet? Well, let me tell you, it’s not just some frivolous piece of jewelry. It’s my portable hospital. Anywhere I happen to be, it can do a cardiogram, check my blood pressure, and even tell me my cholesterol without wasting time.”

Dionisio wondered if this beautiful woman was really a nurse in disguise. A hospital would have rewarded her efficiency, but it was haste, not efficiency, that mattered most to this divine creature. Dionisio began to doubt she was speaking to someone in Holland, but there was certainly no way in hell she was speaking to him. Was she talking to herself?

“So listen, with no time, no address, no name, no place, no office, no vacation, no kitchen, what am I left with?”

Her voice broke; she was going to cry. Dionisio panicked. He wished he could hug her or at least stroke her hand. She was becoming more hysterical by the minute. For the first time, she looked at him, telling him she was Sally Booth, thirty-six years old, a native of Portland, Oregon, voted in high school most likely to succeed, three husbands, three divorces, no children, occasional lovers, farther and farther away, love by telephone, long-distance orgasms, love with security, without problems, no body fluids, safe. I won’t go to a hospital, I’m going to die at home …

Abruptly interrupting her emotional flow, her instant biography, she squeezed Dionisio’s hand and said, “What is money good for? To buy people. We all need accomplices.”

And on that note, she disappeared like the first two, and Dionisio sat there staring at an empty plate where only the juicy traces of a rare steak survived (even though he had explicitly ordered medium).

“You could have been more cruel and less beautiful,” said the Symbolist poet whom Dionisio, to his sorrow although also for his intermittent pleasure, carried within him.

But this time his portable Baudelaire never left the suitcase; the little charro’s pistol went off again, and the blond waiter unexpectedly set down before him a lemon sherbet that Baco identified as the trou normand of French cuisine, the “Norman hole” that cleanses the palate of the main courses and prepares it for new tastes. He was astounded that the American Grill in a commercial center on the outskirts of San Diego would know anything about such subtleties, but he was even more taken aback to find, when he looked up, a woman before him. Without being beautiful, she was radiant—that he saw instantly. Her face, devoid of makeup, both needed and didn’t need cosmetics—they were irrelevant. Everything in her immaculate face had meaning. Her eyebrows, with their blond pallor, were like the meeting place of sand and sea; her lips, appropriately thin, were appropriately furrowed by an insinuation of imminent maturity she didn’t deign to disguise; her hair was pulled back and gathered in a bun, her first gray hairs of no importance to her, floating like lost clouds over a field of honey; her eyes, her eyes of a deep gray, the gray of good cashmere, of morning rain, as gray as an unexpected encounter, intelligent, slate and chalk, announced her special nature—they were eyes that changed color with the rain. They looked past Dionisio’s shoulder toward the television screen.

“I always wished I could play for a baseball team,” she said, smiling, as Baco, lost in the eyes of his new woman, let his lemon sherbet melt away. “It takes a special kind of art to make those low catches.”

“Like Willie Mays,” Dionisio interposed. “He really knew how to pull out those low catches.”

“How do you know that?” she said with genuine amazement, genuine fondness.

“I don’t like American cooking, but I do admire American culture—sports, movies, gringo literature.”

“Willie Mays,” said the un-made-up woman, rolling her eyes up toward heaven. “It’s funny how someone who does things well never does them just for himself. It’s as if he did them for everyone.”

“Who are you thinking of?” asked Dionisio, more and more ravished by this trou normand of a woman.

“Faulkner. I’m thinking of William Faulkner. I’m thinking about how a single genius can save an entire culture.”

“A writer can’t save anything. You’re mistaken there.”

“No, it’s you who are mistaken. Faulkner showed the southerners that the South could be something other than violence, racism, the Ku Klux Klan, prejudice, and rednecks.”

“All that came into your head from watching television?”

“It really does intrigue me. Do we watch television because things happen there, or do things happen so they can be seen on television?”

He went on with the game. “Is Mexico poor because she’s underdeveloped, or is she underdeveloped because she’s poor?”

Now it was her turn to laugh.

“You see, people used to watch Willie Mays play, and the next day they read the paper to make sure he’d played. Now you can see the information and the game at the same time. You don’t have to verify anything. That’s worrisome.”

“You mentioned Mexico,” she said, questioningly, after a moment in which she lowered her eyes, doubtful. “Are you Mexican?”

Dionisio nodded affirmatively.

“I love and don’t love your country,” said the woman with the gray eyes and the clouds crowning her honey hair. “I adopted a Mexican girl. The Mexican doctors who gave her to me didn’t tell me she had a serious heart problem. When I brought her here, I took her in for a routine checkup and was told that if she wasn’t operated on immediately she wouldn’t last another two weeks. Why didn’t they tell me that in Mexico?”

“Probably so you wouldn’t change your mind and would go ahead with the adoption.”

“But she could have died, she could have … Oh, Mexican cruelty, the abuse, the indifference toward the poor—what they suffer. Your country is a horror.”

“I’ll bet the girl’s pretty.”

“Very pretty. I really love her. She’s going to live,” she said, her eyes transfigured, just before she disappeared. “She’s going to live…”

Dionisio could only stare at the melted sherbet he’d had no time to eat; the charro genie, impatient to carry out his orders and disappear, had fired his pistol again, and a cute woman appeared with curly hair and a flat nose, nervous, jolly eyes, dimples, and capped teeth. She gave him a big smile, as if she were welcoming him onto a plane, school, or hotel. It was impossible to know what it meant—appearances are deceiving. Her features were so nondescript she could have been anything, even a bordello madam. She wore jogging clothes, a light-blue jacket and sweatpants. She never stopped talking, as if Dionisio’s presence were irrelevant to her compulsive discourse, which had neither beginning nor end and seemed directed to an ideal audience of infinitely patient or infinitely detached listeners.

The salad appeared, accompanied by the waiter’s scornful gesture and his muttered censure: “Salad is eaten at the beginning.”

“Think I should get a tattoo? There are two things I’ve never had. A tattoo and a lover. Think I’m too old for that?”

“No. You look as if you could be between thirty and—”

“When you’re a kid, that’s when having tattoos is good. But now? Imagine me with a tattoo on my ankle. How am I going to show up at my own daughter’s wedding with a tattoo on my ankle? Even worse, how am I going to go—someday—to my granddaughter’s wedding with a tattoo on my ankle? Maybe it would be better if I had a tattoo on my boob—that way only my lover would see it in secret. Now that I’m about to get a divorce, I was lucky enough to meet this in-cred-ible man. Where do you think his territory is?”

“I don’t know. Do you mean his house or his office?”

“No, silly. I mean how much territory he covers professionally. Guess! I’d better tell you: the whole world. He buys nonpatented replacement parts. Know what those are? All the parts for machinery, for household appliances, TVs, where no rights have to be paid. What do you think of that? He’s a genius! Even so, I suspect he may be a homosexual. I don’t know if he’d know how to bring up my kids. I toilet trained them very early. I don’t understand why friends of mine toilet trained their kids so late or never bothered…”

Dionisio quickly ate the salad to get rid of the soon-to-be-divorced lady, and with his last bite, she vanished. Did I cannibalize her or did she cannibalize me? wondered the food critic, overcome by a growing sense of anguish he could not identify. Was all this a gag? It was a fog.

And it was not cleared away by the arrival of dessert, a lemon meringue pie whose female counterpart Baco was afraid to see, especially because at the beginning of this adventure he’d watched the fat women pass by, desiring them platonically. He was right to be afraid. Seated opposite him, he saw when the noise of the charro’s shot had faded, was a monstrous woman who weighed 650 if she weighed a pound. Her pink sweatshirt announced her cause: FLM, the Fat Liberation Movement. She couldn’t cross her Michelin man arms over her immense tits, which moved on their own inside her sweatshirt and fell like a flesh Niagara Falls over the barrel of her stomach, the only obstacle blocking one from contemplation of her spongy legs, bare from the thighs down, indifferent to the indecency of her wrinkled shorts. Her moist hands, loathsome, rested on Dionisio’s. The critic trembled. He tried to pull his hands free. Impossible. The fat woman was there to catechize him, and resigned to his fate, he prepared himself to be good and catechized.

“Do you know how many million obese people we have in the USA?”

“As a matter of fact, I do.”

“Don’t even guess, my boy. Forty million of what others pejoratively call fat people. But I’m telling you, no one can be discriminated against for their physical defects. I walk the streets telling myself, I am beautiful and intelligent. I say it in a low voice, then I shout it, I am beautiful and intelligent! Don’t force me to be perverse! That gets their attention. Then I make our demands. Obese is beautiful. Weight-loss programs should be declared illegal. Movies and airlines should install special seats for people like me. We’ve had enough of buying two tickets just so we can travel in comfort.”

She raised her voice, hysterical.

“And nobody make fun of me! I’m beautiful and intelligent. Don’t make me be perverse. I was cook on a ship registered in San Diego. We were coming from Hawaii. It was a freighter. One day I was walking on deck eating ice cream and a sailor got up, pulled it out of my hand, and threw it overboard. ‘Don’t get any fatter,’ he said, laughing his head off. ‘Your fat disgusts all of us. You’re ridiculous.’ That night, down in the kitchen, I put a laxative in the soup. Then I walked through the passageways shouting over the moans of the crew, ‘I’m beautiful and intelligent. Don’t mess with me. Don’t make me be perverse.’ I lost my job. I hope you’ll want me. Is it true? Here I am … listen … what’s wrong with you?”

Dionisio liberated his hands and swallowed the pie so the fat woman would disappear. But she understood his contempt and managed to shout: “You were tricked, you jerk! My name is Ruby, and I’m involved with a Chilean novelist named José Donoso. I will only be his!”

Dionisio stood up in horror, left an outrageous hundred-dollar bill on the table, and ran from the American Grill. Once again he felt that terrible anguish, felt it turn into a feeling of something lost, of something he had to do, though he didn’t know what.

He stopped running when he came to the window of an American Express office. A dummy representing a typical Mexican, in a wide sombrero, huaraches, and the clothes of a peon, was leaning against a cactus, taking his siesta. The cliché infuriated Dionisio. He stormed into the travel agency and started to shake the dummy. But the dummy was made not of wood but of flesh and blood, and exclaimed, “Damn it to hell, they don’t even let you sleep around here.”

The employees were shouting, too, telling him to leave their “pee-on” alone, let him do his job, we’re promoting Mexico. But Dionisio pushed him out the door, took him by the shoulders, shook him, and asked him who he was, what he was doing there. And the Mexican model (or model Mexican) respectfully removed his sombrero.

“There would be no way for you to know it, but I’ve been lost here for ten years.”

“What are you saying? Ten what? What?”

“Ten years, boss. I came over one day and got lost in the shopping mall and never got out. And then they hired me here to take siestas in windows, and if there’s no work, I can sneak in and sleep on cushions or beach chairs. There’s more than enough food—they just leave it, they throw it away. If you only saw—”

“Come, come with me,” said Dionisio, taking the peon by the sleeve, electrified by the word food, awake, alert to his own emotions, to the memory of the woman with gray eyes, the woman who adopted the Mexican girl, the woman who read Faulkner—that’s the one he should have chosen. Providence had arranged things. None of the other women mattered, only that one, that sensitive little gringa, who was strong, intelligent. She was his, had to be his. He was fifty-one and she was forty—they’d make a fine couple. What was this perverse game all about? The charro genie, his kitschy alter ego, that bastard, that picturesque asshole, that skirt chaser, that total opposite of his Symbolist, Baudelairean, French alter ego, was also his double, his brother, but the little guy was Mexican and was always pulling a fast one, teasing him, offering him the moon but handing him shit, devaluing his life, his love, his desire. The genie didn’t tell him that when he ate a steak or a shrimp cocktail or a lemon meringue pie he was also eating the woman who was the incarnation of each dish, and here he was, delirious, going mad, dragging a poor hungry man through a California mall until they reached the restaurant called the American Grill and he was illuminated, convinced now it was all true. He’d eaten everything but the lemon sherbet: she was alive, she had not been devoured by his other Aztec ego, his pocket-sized Huitzilopochtli, his national Minimoctezuma.

“Sorry,” said the waiter who’d taken care of him, “we throw away the leftovers. Your melted sherbet went down the drain a while ago.”

Saying it evidently gave him pleasure, and he licked his down-covered lips. Ready to weep with sadness, Dionisio screamed. He was still dragging the peon along by the hand, and lost in the labyrinth of consumerism, the Mexican became alarmed and said, I’ve never gotten beyond this place, this is where I get lost, I’ve been captive here for ten years! But Dionisio paid no attention and pushed him into the rented Mustang. The peon suffered the tortures of the damned as they raced through the tangled nets of highways, the vertebrae of a cement beast, sleeping but alert. They arrived at the storage center north of the city.

Here Dionisio stopped.

“Come along. I need you to help me.”

“Where we going, boss? Don’t take me away from here! Don’t you realize what it costs us to enter Gringoland? I don’t want to go back to Guerrero!”

“Try to understand. I have no prejudices.”

“It’s that I like all this—the shopping center where I live, the television, the abundance, the tall buildings…”

“I know.”

“What, boss? What do you know?”

“None of this we’re seeing here would exist if the gringos hadn’t stolen all this land from us. In Mexican hands, this would be a huge wasteland.”

“In Mexican hands—”

“A big desert, this would be a big desert, from California to Texas. I’m telling you this so you won’t think I’m unfair.”

“Okay, chief.”

Almost no one saw them. They abandoned the Mustang in the Colorado desert, south of Death Valley. The peon lost for ten years in the mall had not lost his ancestral talent for carrying things on his back. He was the descendant of bearers—bearers of stones, corn, sugar cane, minerals, flowers, chairs, birds … Now Dionisio loaded him up with a pyramid of electrical appliances, machines to make you thin, limited-edition CDs of Hoagy Carmichael, Cathy Lee Crosby exercise videos, plates commemorating the death of Elvis, and cans, dozens of cans, the entire world in cans, metal gastronomy. Dionisio, meanwhile, gathered in his arms the catalogs, subscriptions, newspapers, specialized magazines, and coupons; and the two of them, Baco and his squire, the Don Quixote of fine cuisine and the Mexican Rip Van Winkle who slept away the Lost Decade in a shopping mall, made their way south, toward the border, toward Mexico, scattering along the U.S. desert, along earth that once belonged to Mexico, the vacuum cleaners and washing machines, the hamburgers and Dr. Peppers, the insipid beers and watery coffees, the greasy pizzas and frozen hot dogs, the magazines and coupons, the CDs and the confetti made of electronic mail. Heading toward Mexico with nothing gringo, exclaimed Dionisio, tossing all the accumulated objects into the air, onto the earth, into the burning sun, until the Mustang exploded in the distance, leaving a cloud as bloody as a mushroom of flesh. Everything, get rid of everything, Dionisio said to his companion. Get rid of your clothing, just as I’m doing, scatter everything in the desert—we’re going back to Mexico, we’re not bringing a single gringo thing with us, not a single one, my brother, my double. We’re returning to the fatherland naked. You can already see the border. Open your eyes wide—do you see, do you feel, do you smell, can you taste?

From the border came the unmistakable scent of Mexican food, an unstoppable smell.

“It’s the Puebla-style marrow tarts!” exclaimed Dionisio “Baco” Rangel jubilantly. “Five hundred grams of marrow! Two chiles! Smell it! Cilantro! It smells of cilantro! Let’s get to Mexico, to the frontier, let’s go, brother. Let’s arrive there as naked as the day we were born, return naked from the land that has everything to the land that has nothing!”

The recipe for Puebla-style marrow tarts consists of 500 grams of marrow, a cup of water, two chiles, 600 grams of dough, 3 teaspoons of flour, and oil to cook it all in.

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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